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Talk to Me

Review

Talk to Me

Aimee Villard is a shy, somewhat bored college student at UC Santa Maria, watching a TV game show to avoid studying, when she first sees the chimp named Sam who will change her life.

On an episode of “To Tell the Truth,” professor Guy Schermerhorn is talking to Sam using sign language, and Aimee is smitten, both with the adorable juvenile chimp in his diapers and polo shirt, and with the thought that an ape could conceptualize and express both what it wanted (a cheeseburger) and the future (it signed that it wanted to go home to bed). “It was as if a door that had been closed all her life had suddenly swung open.” Two days later, she’s surprised to see Professor Schermerhorn’s face on the bulletin board in the Psych department of her school. It’s a newspaper article about his television appearance, and right next to it is a flyer, advertising for students to assist in the Professor’s cross-fostering project.

"You’ll be drawn into this fast-paced, unusual love story, even as you ponder the ethics of how our powerful species exploits those 'beneath' it on the evolutionary ladder."

The project is taking place on a ranch six miles out of town, where Guy and his recently decamped wife have raised Sam from infancy. After a brief interview with Guy at the school, Aimee and another applicant named Barbara show up at the ranch shortly after Sam bites Elise, one of two student interns, in the face. Amidst all the chaos, which turns out to be fairly normal at the ranch, Sam jumps into Aimee’s arms on the porch, unmistakably choosing her. “It was intense. The most intense moment of her life, electric, like plugging a wire into a socket. Here was this animal she didn’t know at all, a wild animal one generation removed from the jungles of West Africa, and suddenly it --- he --- was hers. Or she was his.”

Like the rest of T.C. Boyle’s fiction, this novel has many layers: it's a tragic love story, an exploration of the morality of experiments on animals, and a page-turner. Aimee is not only just what Guy needs to continue his project, she is a pretty young thing who falls for Guy as well as Sam. Each of the three main characters --- Aimee, Guy and, yes, even Sam --- provide points of view in alternating chapters. Of course there’s a villain, in the form of Guy’s mentor, the cruel, one-eyed Professor Moncrief, who has loaned Sam to him and must be placated. He keeps chimps in a cold barn in Iowa --- for breeding, for experiments --- and he views them solely as valuable and dangerous beasts.

In the course of the novel, Sam spends some time there and makes us feel the helplessness, the despair and the rage that intelligent caged creatures feel. Having only spent time with humans, he sees the other chimps in other cages as BUGS, “big black chittering BUGS, things beneath his notice, things meant to be squashed against a wall or clapped between two hands.”

In the end, Aimee’s devotion to Sam brings about desperate actions and hard choices. You’ll be drawn into this fast-paced, unusual love story, even as you ponder the ethics of how our powerful species exploits those “beneath” it on the evolutionary ladder.

Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on September 17, 2021

Talk to Me
by T.C. Boyle

  • Publication Date: September 14, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco
  • ISBN-10: 0063052857
  • ISBN-13: 9780063052857