Twelve contestants begin to film a gritty reality show set in the wilderness. While they are filming, something terrible happens out in the real world. But, they don’t know it. Will any of them survive? Will humanity survive?
In the book blurb, The Last One is compared to Station Eleven and The Passage neither of which I liked very much. I thought Station Eleven was boring and The Passage is the Game of Thrones of dystopian literature, it goes on and on and on… Unlike the other two titles, I think that The Last One got the mix of action to number of characters just right. If I had to pick the book that I think it’s most like, I would compare it to Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood but with far more like-able characters and a much more optimistic world view.
The Last One is told through a first person, present narrative and a third person flashback, alternating viewpoints between chapters. I was a bit frustrated with that set up until the timelines began to converge towards the end of the book, because Oliva kept putting in foreshadowing, but then not delivering on it until a couple chapters later- just long enough for me to completely forget about it. I’m much more of an instant gratification kind of reader, but I managed to push through it and really started to enjoy the novel despite the style of storytelling.
Mixing reality television with the end of the world was brilliant because the mind set of the people in the reality shows is already in survival of the fittest/game mode. I completely believed the mental breakdown that Zoo suffered when she tried to figure out where the game ended and reality began. She was put in a situation where she wasn’t supposed to know what was going on and then, she didn’t even know when exactly, no one knew what was going on. This type of world ending felt much more believable than the descent into chaos in World War Z or Station Eleven because of that slow transition to a different world provided by the reality tv show setting.
Also, anyone who’s ever watched reality tv will immediately grasp the archtypical roles that Oliva uses to label her characters and it makes it simple to keep a rather large group of people straight in your mind. Fans of Big Brother, Top Chef, The Jersey Shore, and any of the countless other offerings of that genre will eat this up.
What I loved most about this book is that it was so easy to put myself in Zoo’s shoes. In this passage, she’s talking about her reluctance to go on the show: “It didn’t used to be so difficult to leave, but it was different before I met my husband. Before- leaving Stowe for college, that summer hiking hostel to hostel across western Europe, six months in Australia after graduating from Columbia- my fear was always tempered by excitement enough to tip the scales. Leaving was always scary, but it was never hard. But this time I not only left familiarity behind, I left happiness. There’s a difference, the magnitude of which I didn’t anticipate.”advance reader, pg 24-25
Cooper, aka Tracker, was also so relatable. He reminded me of various people that I have known in my real life: “Cooper was kind of like that at first. Standoffish. I don’t know what drew me to him so strongly from the start. No- I do. His air of almost freakish competence. The way he scanned each of us, assessing without looking for allies, because from the moment he leapt into that tree it was clear he didn’t need anyone but himself. I bet his entire adult life has been like that: needing no one, being needed by no one- existing without apology and accomplishing wonders. I’d never been around someone so supremely independent before and was fascinated.” advance reader, pg 38
The reality show mentality begins: “Waitress’s animosity doesn’t surprise Exorcist, but Rancher’s agreement does, as do the many nodding heads around the campfire. Briefly, he looks into a camera lens, as though accusing the device of having put the others up to this. Indeed, that’s exactly what he’s doing; he thinks they’re performing- like he is. But the truth is most of the contestants have in this moment forgotten that they’re being recorded. An ancient instinct is kicking in, not so much a survival-of-the-fittest mentality as an unwillingness to carry an able but lazy individual.” advance reader, pg 174
Zoo’s confusion between reality and reality television makes for some really intense, introspective moments: “I wonder how I’m being portrayed now. I know what my role was when we started. I was the earnest animal lover, always cheerful and up for a Challenge. But now? Will they cast me as off my rocker? Probably not; that’s Randy’s role, with his stupid gold cross and his tales of possessed toddlers. But whoever I am now, I’m no longer who I was. I wonder if I can even do that anymore, be that person grinning until her cheeks ache. It was exhausting, as exhausting as this endless trekking, in its own way.” advance reader, pg 185 After awhile, I started to wonder if Zoo would ever accept what was really happening to her or choose to keep soldiering on and never come back from the world that she was building in her head. I liked her enough though, that I was cheering for her sanity, every step of the way. That’s the sign of a good book, I think.
For all the women out there who didn’t change their name at marriage, like me, like Zoo:“After I cross the overgrown lawn, I will stand on the woven welcome mat- a gift from my mother-in-law…. our mat has my husband’s surname stitched on it. Not mine. My mother-in-law never accepted that I didn’t change my name. We made a joke of it and Sharpied my name on there too- under his, but bigger.” advance reader, pg 206. I have some relatives like that too- can’t let other people get you down.
Finally, I loved this moment, when Zoo’s happy mask begins to crack on the television show and how she’s received: “Waitress is shocked, as are Rancher and the camerman. The producers will be shocked too, and the editor, who will work so hard to explain away this moment. But there is at least one viewer who won’t be shocked: Zoo’s husband. He knows this secret competitive side of her, her impatience for wallowing and delay. He also knows how fear can turn her mean.”advance reader, pg 221. Ah marriage, the ultimate reality show.
There’s a lot more to The Last One that I’m not going to talk about here because I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone. It’s a great book. I recommend it for readers who enjoy dystopians, for television watchers who enjoy reality shows, and for anyone who has ever wondered about their capacity to survive the end of the world. Could you be as strong as Zoo? Could I? I wonder…
Big thanks to NetGalley and the Goodreads First Reads program for a free ARC of this book. And, thanks for reading! -Heidi
The full text of this review also appeared on Heidi’s blog.