The Woman and the Ape

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The Woman and the Ape is the story of a unique and unforgettable couple—Madelene and Erasmus. Madelene is the wife of Adam Burden, a distinguished behavioral scientist. Erasmus—the unlikely prince—is a 300-pound ape. Brought to the Burdens' London home after escaping from animal smugglers, Erasmus is discovered to be a highly intelligent anthropoid ape, the closest thing yet to a human being. Madelene decides to save Erasmus, and between them blossoms a profound affection as deep as any human relationship. A ...

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The Woman and the Ape: A Novel

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The Woman and the Ape is the story of a unique and unforgettable couple—Madelene and Erasmus. Madelene is the wife of Adam Burden, a distinguished behavioral scientist. Erasmus—the unlikely prince—is a 300-pound ape. Brought to the Burdens' London home after escaping from animal smugglers, Erasmus is discovered to be a highly intelligent anthropoid ape, the closest thing yet to a human being. Madelene decides to save Erasmus, and between them blossoms a profound affection as deep as any human relationship. A fable for our time, The Woman and the Ape poses searching questions about the nature of love, freedom, and humanity.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The Woman and the Ape has many arrestingly stylish and inventive passages and an overall brilliance of tone that shows once again the originality of Mr. Høeg's voice."—The New York Times

"A witty, compelling thriller that touches a primal nerve that has lain dormant since King Kong fell hard for Fay Wray."—Francine Prose, People

"This decade's most offbeat love story . . . Funny, often touching, and definitely inventive."—David Walton, St. Petersburg Times

"The Woman and the Ape is great fun to read. . . . Peter Høeg has written an intelligent novel of ideas and slyly disguised it as a lighthearted comedy. . . . He's figured out how to blend his various styles into a distinctive voice that's satiric, deadpan funny, at once warm and cool."—Brigitte Frase, Newsday

"No imaginative writer working today is any more daring than Danish novelist Peter Høeg, any more willing to shock readers with something that is genuinely new. . . . He does it again with this utterly original mix of fantasy, fable, myth, and love story."—Bill Ott, Booklist (starred review)

"This should confirm Peter Høeg's place as one of the most creative and interesting authors today."—Elizabeth D. Dickie, Richmond Times-Dispatch

"One of the most griping books I've read in years. It moved me so deeply that by the end I found myself weeping."—Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, The Village Voice Literary Supplement

"An engrossing fable."—Deloris Ament, The Seattle Times

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
No one will ever be able to claim that Heg doesn't know how to hook a reader. The newest ecothriller by the author of Smilla's Sense of Snow opens with the deceptively simple sentence: "An ape was approaching London." What the vague syntax and flat affect omit could (and does) fill a book. For instance, the "ape"-who's dubbed Erasmus-turns out not to be "some sort of dwarf chimpanzee" as eminent zoologist Adam Burden claims, but a brand new species of ape that just might have the potential for language and higher cognitive functions. The opening line gives little indication of the hubbub Erasmus will raise in a few short paragraphs when he causes the Ark, the ship that has carried him captive to London, to lose its crew and plow mast-first into busy St. Katharine's Dock. Or, a few pages later, when he leads Dr. Burden and his minions on a merry chase through the streets of London. Or, a couple of chapters down the road, when Erasmus seduces Madelene, who just happens to be Burden's beautiful alcoholic wife, and takes her away for a week-long lovefest at a wild animal park. The first line gives no indication of all this because the story and its characters are mere window-dressing for Heg. While he's a fluid writer who is competent at telling stories, it's in the realm of ideas that he excels. There are long passages in which he analyzes Erasmus and human emotions and London itself in terms that are by turns mechanistic and organic. On one page, London is a "gigantic mycelium," a fungus. On a later page, we discover that London is a worn-out machine," full of blind spots and flat points." At the end of this fine and diverting novel, Madelene explains how she's always pictured angels, and her definition could as easily stand for Erasmus or London or even the Earth. "It's one third god, one third animal, and one third human." 100,000 first printing; major ad/promo. (Dec.) FYI: The movie version of Smilla's Sense of Snow, starring Julia Ormond and Gabriel Byrne, is scheduled for release in March 1997.
Library Journal
From Smilla's Sense of Snow to Borderliners to A History of Danish Dreams, Danish novelist Heg has maintained a sharp sense of social critique that, refreshingly, is not wittily dismisive but earnest without being heavy-handed. And what better way to show up human heartlessness and pretension, particularly of the ruling classes, than in our treatment of animals? In this swift-paced, lacerating new work, an ape brought illegally to England ends up at the home of Madelene, a Danish woman married to Adam Burden, director of the Institute of Animal Behavioral Research. Madelene is young, fresh, and deeply alcoholic, but through the glassy haze that Heg describes so effectivelyfrom the inside out, not simply for dramatic effect but almost as an aesthetic experience, like being in a crystal cageshe can tell the ape is in danger. Madelene sets out to rescue the ape from her coldly calculating husband and his even more frigid sister and, in the process, rescues herself. That is the only predictable aspect of this thought-provoking work, which is too fresh in its writing and its perceptions to fall into the sentimentality one might expect. An air of freedom surrounds Madelene's eventual abduction by the ape, and though their sexual involvment may seem over the top to some readers, you can't help but be carried along by Heg's convictions. Don't think King Kong; this is much subtler. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 7/96.]Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal"
Rob Spillman
Peter Hoeg, the Danish author of the surprise international bestseller, Smilla's Sense of Snow," has concocted a new book that's as awkward as its own half-breed protagonist. The Woman and the Ape centers on a captured ape of an unknown species - a missing link that's nefariously smuggled to London to be the centerpiece of an expanded zoo and animal research center.

Hoeg has tried to write what might best be termed a feminist/animal-liberationist/futurist/social-disaster thriller, and the result is half bird and half rhino - an ungainly monster that never gets off the ground. The Woman, a pampered, upper-crusty Dane named Madelene, is the wife of zookeeper Adam, and she's the only one who can save The Ape from grisly testing and permanent imprisonment. After they run off together, The Ape quickly learns English, and (naturally) one thing leads to another - and we are faced with some truly absurd cross-species pollination. This happens in a paradisaical animal preserve in Northern England, a place of Darwinian simplicity where the humans have left the animals to fend for themselves within the confines of the forest.

Madelene and The Ape leave the garden only when they realize that Adam will most likely kidnap other Apes. Hoeg deftly shows Madelene's entrapment by her social and marital status, and he parallels this with the societal imprisonment of The Ape and all other animals. Unfortunately, Hoeg gets tangled up in his own ambitions - he rambles on and on about the fate of the animals and mankind, and the threadbare plot can barely hold up all of the saccharinely earnest sermonizing. Hoeg's intentions are obviously genuinely charitable (he is donating all proceeds of this book to a self-started fund that helps Third World women and children). But from such a talented writer this is a surprisingly flat, disorganized and sadly unconvincing novel. --Salon

Kirkus Reviews
Heg's fourth novel (his third, the international success Smilla's Sense of Snow, 1993, having been the first published here) is an energetic fable about relations between the animal kingdom and its human exploiters—more than a little didactic in spots, but distinguished by enough wit and invention to redeem a dozen lesser books.

The story begins in London when a "dwarf chimpanzee" escapes from animal smugglers and is immediately captured and targeted for exhaustive experimentation by a research institute affiliated with the city's zoo. Behavioral scientist Adam Burden and his steely sister Andrea, who works for an Animal Welfare Foundation, see in their astonishing find ("a new and hitherto unknown mammal, an apparently highly intelligent anthropoid ape") a career-making opportunity. But their plans are thwarted when Adam's Danish-born wife Madelene, a lissome alcoholic, discovers in the ape (named "Erasmus") a fellow sufferer whose captivity echoes her own (as a tamed, well-behaved helpmate and showpiece), and also a potential soulmate. Forswearing drink, Madelene craftily subverts her husband's careerist politicking, and—aided by the smuggler's cheerfully criminal driver—runs off with Erasmus. The novel really picks up seriocomic steam as Madelene and Erasmus learn to communicate (he can talk, and is a quick learner), make love in the treetops, and enjoy a mock-Edenic "idyll" unobserved in a junglelike wildlife preserve. Everything climaxes during Adam's acceptance speech as he's being installed as the London Zoo's new director—with dramatic proof that Erasmus isn't the only creature of his kind. It's a romp, in more senses than one, and Heg manages, against odds, to shape both the story's discursiveness and its ingenious plot toward a smashing and emotionally satisfying conclusion.

Heg is an adventurous and intelligent writer whose future course seems, happily, impossible to predict. He has made himself, in a few short years, one of the essential contemporary novelists.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312427122
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 10/30/2007
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 955,328
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter Høeg, born in 1957 in Denmark, followed various callings—dancer, actor, sailor, fencer, and mountaineer—before turning seriously to writing. He is the bestselling author of five novels and one short story collection. His work has been published in thirty-three countries.

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Reading Group Guide


Madelene Burden seems an unlikely heroine.

The beautiful Danish wife of Adam, a distinguished British behavioral scientist, she is unobtrusive, acquiescent, and "nothing much really" according to her father. Spending each day like her last, she perfects her make-up and wanders the grounds of her colonialist in-laws' vast manor, not-so-slowly drinking herself numb off a homemade concoction of 99.6% ethyl alcohol and water.

Erasmus seems an unlikely romantic lead.

Weighing in at a hefty 300 pounds, he is hairy, lice-infested, and just so happens to be an ape. Victim of a botched animal-smuggling attempt, Erasmus is believed to be "a new and hitherto unknown mammal, an apparently highly intelligent anthropoid ape." Adam Burden and his calculating sister Andrea (who, ironically, heads up London's Animal Welfare Foundation) anticipate the opportunity of a lifetime by introducing this new species to the world. Certainly this will ensure Adam's appointment to the directorship of the New London Regent's Park Zoological Garden, soon to be the world's most powerful animal institution.

Seeing in Erasmus a kindred spirit, Madelene realizes that "she too was an ape, for, while she might well be able to leave this cage, and this house, she would not get very far before running up against the financial, social and marital barriers that circumscribed her life." Enlisting the aid of the still-befuddled smugglers, Madeline and Erasmus make a daring and dramatic escape over the balconies and rooftops of London to the Edenic rural game preserve of St. Francis Forest, where Madelene explores her "animal" side and Erasmus his "human." Over the course of the next few weeks the unlikely pair experience each other physically and mentally, eventually fall in love, and plot their next move.

Madelene and Erasmus can only keep the outside world at bay for so long. Towards the novel's conclusion, we learn that Erasmus has come to England with a purpose after all, and much like the scores of animal activists, zoologists, journalists, and police who are trying to hunt the couple down, he too has a hidden agenda – one which affects not only Erasmus and his "people" but Madelene, a society's conscience, and the entire human race as well.


The Woman and the Ape is Danish author Peter Hoeg's fourth novel. His works prior to this include Borderliners, The History of Danish Dreams, and the critically acclaimed, internationally successful thriller Smilla's Sense of Snow. Keeping close to his roots, he currently resides in Copenhagen with his wife and two daughters.


  1. Erasmus informs Madelene that where he comes from, his kind are called "people" and hers "animals." In what ways throughout the book does Hoeg project the notion that animals are more like people and people more like animals?
  2. Madelene comes from Denmark, where the "very atmosphere was crystalline and under constant threat of shattering and no voice was ever raised above a whisper for fear of starting an avalanche." In what ways are Erasmus and Madelene more similar than different? Do you feel they are held together more by their commonalities or differences? What do you think Hoeg is saying about the relationship between humans and animals?
  3. Discuss Madelene's "resurrection" every morning. Why is it necessary? How is this resurrection different by the end of the book?
  4. When the public learned that Erasmus was not the only highly intelligent talking ape in their midst, "the nation froze and ground to a halt. Every visible human activity ceased, even crime came to a standstill, paralyzed by a fear greater than greed." How do you account for that kind of reaction?
  5. Describe instances, images, and/or metaphors throughout the book in which Hoeg expresses feelings of confinement and captivity.
  6. Where do you find Hoeg's images of civilization and paradise? Is it possible for the two to coexist?
  7. Near the end of the novel, Dr. Bowen confides that, according to Erasmus' DNA analysis, "We had it all wrong. Burden, his sister and I. We thought we would learn something about one of those hominids which came before man. But you are not what went before. If anything, you are what comes afterward." What do you think Hoeg is saying about human evolution?
  8. In the novel, the scientific world of animal research is portrayed as cruel, exploitative, and tortuous. Where does thirst for knowledge end and brutality towards animals begin? When, if at all, can zoological institutions be justified? Can animal research for human "well being" be justified?


Smilla's Sense of Snow

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