Rosemary Cooke, the daughter of a professor and his wife is telling her life story – she is now, at the end of the book, nearly 40 years old and her life really has been rather different –
Back-story – when Rosemary was 5 years old, her mother an emotional mess, her father, an animal psychologist involved in experiments on chimps, her life changed dramatically when her sister Fern “went missing.” That is the demarcation line of our heroine’s life and it’s a huge one. Turns out “sis” is a chimpanzee and the two were raised together from infancy along with a brother who is a bit older. Fern’s sudden disappearance has devastating life-long consequences – or did the consequences begin when the unusual family got together? There were long term effects from sibling rivalry to language barriers and behavioral issues on Rosemary’s psyche – probably Fern’s, too.
And when his sister Fern has gone missing, Rosemary’s older brother, Lowell, can’t take it anymore so he runs away to save Fern in some way – becomes wanted by the FBI and is possibly in Davis, California -which is why Rosemary lands at UC Davis.
Can a chimpanzee really be a “sister” to a human girl? Can she really be the “daughter” of human parents? I suppose the main theme is nature vs nurture. How far can you go? – Well – that’s an original theme anyway, so long as we don’t get too heavy into the reliability of the narrator – definitely questionable by her own admission – this might be okay.
Animal experimentation is THE huge, huge theme of this book but it’s intertwined with ideas about love and loss and memory and a solid dose of feminism to round it out. There are sections which read more like essays though – but its’ a campus novel – so that’s not too bad.
What’s bad is that the book is too heavily political for my tastes – Barbara Kingsolver, who gives an award for socially aware novels, loved it – see the NYT for her review:
There are interesting moments but most of them are where the information about factual is referenced:
Kellogg Chimp Study: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gua_(chimpanzee)
Winthrop Kellog: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winthrop_Kellogg
University of Indiana Chimp studies: http://www.indiana.edu/~semliki/Links.shtml
Nim Chimpsky http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nim_Chimpsky