When I looked through the meager book section of the Al Asad PX in hopes of finding a book that wasn't a mystery/thriller, this one caught my eye. I had actually enjoyed Water for Elephants, and decided her follow up novel would be worth a shot despite the fact that I'm not really that into monkeys or apes, and the description on the back made it sound like a lurid affair would take place. Fortunately, the description completely misrepresents that part of the book. Yes, Isabel's life changes after meeting "very married" reporter John Thigpen but that's because shortly after the interview, someone bombs her workplace, not because her romantic attraction inspires her to change her life. In fact, they don't even meet again till nearly the end of the novel, and he spends more time thinking about her (due to both her interview and the bombing that followed it) than she does about him. In fact she doesn't think of him until she needs a reporter on her side.
The first hundred or so pages of this novel are very good - it sets up and introduces the bonobos that are part of the Great Ape Language Lab where Isabel works. The six bonobos all have personalities, and there are quite a few cute anecdotes about them. It also introduces its human characters: Isabel Duncan, the scientist who sees the apes as family, and who gets caught in the explosion, and John Thigpen, a journalist working in the dying world of print journalism. Gruen makes allusions to Isabel's dramatic family background but it doesn't go anywhere besides showing why she is so attached to the apes. John's wife appears to be suffering from depression due to the lack of success her writing career has had, and is now considering being a writer in Hollywood, which leads to a bunch of insecurities on her part.
After the bonobos' habitat is bombed, and they are sold, the novel takes too long to track down the animals (there is a trip to lab to see if they are there - while it is a failed rescue attempt, it allows Gruen to portray some of experiments that have been done to chimpanzees, the bonobos' closest relatives), and bring the main characters back together. Isabel finds out some things about one of her colleagues and the plot twists are rather obvious, but I wasn't reading the novel for any conspiracies so that didn't bug me. The main issue with this book is simply that the human characters aren't that well developed, especially Isabel. She just seems so flat. John is a bit more interesting as he and his wife both struggle with their careers and dreams, which are failing. However, this also made the novel incredibly depressing and bleak for most of it - journalism and writing are not exactly easy to break into, and the novel seems to go from one failure for the Thigpens to another. While they are trying to set up careers and jobs with a future and meaning, Isabel spends the novel moping around, missing her animal family. As I said, it was much more depressing than Water for Elephants, which had moments of bleakness intermixed with hope and magical moments - it probably also helped that the miseries in Water for Elephants were set in the past. The stories in here just a bit too topical. In this novel, most of the charm is in the beginning. The bonobos are the most developed of all the characters, and their stint on reality TV was rather amusing.
Some of the situations John got into towards the end at his motel were also a bit ludicrous though amusing enough while reading them. It's not that this was a bad novel necessarily: the parts about the bonobos was interesting and how they compare to chimpanzees (they are less aggressive and more matriarchal), and while parts of the story were very predictable, I still enjoyed the overall story. I just didn't think the human characters were as developed as they could have been which makes this a rather forgettable novel. In fact, I finished the book today and almost couldn't remember the character's names (the human ones at least) - in fact, I can't remember John's wife's name. Basically, Water for Elephants is better, but if someone liked that and wanted to read more by the author, I wouldn't dissuade them from reading it. I could even see myself recommending this to a certain people, maybe someone looking for a semi-educational beach read, but definitely with a few caveats.