Sunday, May 29, 2016

Book Review: "The Last One" by Alexandra Oliva

Alexandra Oliva's The Last One is really thought-provoking. A look at the making of and the people involved with a Survivor-type television show, crossed with a bit of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, this wasn't quite what expected, and it moved me more than I thought it would.

In the Dark is going to be the next big thing in television. A wilderness survival show with an enormous budget, the producers are ready to pull out all of the stops—and the truth is, no one knows just how far the show will go, or how it will end. They assembled a cast that the viewers will both love and love to hate—there are those who seem like real threats to win the competition, those who seem like appealing people the audience will root for, and those who will make good television. (Sounds like every reality show out there, doesn't it?)

We get glimpses of the characters, labeled by the nicknames those involved with the show use to refer to them—Tracker, Carpenter Chick, Air Force, Black Doctor, Waitress, Exorcist, Engineer, Banker, Rancher, Asian Chick, and Cheerleader Boy. But it is Zoo, a researcher at a wildlife refuge near her home, whose eyes we see the show, and the entire book through.

As the episodes of the show unfold, it doesn't seem too surprising if you've ever watched Survivor. But the behind-the-scenes stuff is coupled with a more real survival tale—the contestants are sent out on an individual challenge, and during that something catastrophic happens. Zoo keeps moving forward in her pursuit of her next clues, going where she believes the show wants her to, and starts encountering props and situations more disturbing than what they've had to face thus far. Yet even as she grows physically and emotionally weaker, she keeps on, desperate to make it home to her husband and, if possible, to win.

"If I allow myself to doubt, I'll be lost. I can't doubt. I don't. It all makes sense."

This book was a very interesting juxtaposition between the entertainment world and the much bleaker "real" world that Zoo faces. Having watched Survivor in its first few seasons, as well as a few other reality shows here and there, I didn't find that part of the plot as interesting as Zoo's own journey was. And while I felt it took a little too long for Zoo to realize what had happened, and what was around her, that part of the plot was compelling and tremendously moving, as a person so mentally and physically exhausted, fighting her own psychological demons even before joining the show, has to accept a new, well, reality vastly different than anything she was expecting.

Oliva is really talented, and she really balanced the more lighthearted and sensational elements of the plot with the weightier ones. I thought Zoo was a pretty fascinating character, but I almost wish we had gotten to know a few of her fellow competitors a little bit more, although I understand the point of the book. Beyond the items I mentioned above, my only other criticism is that, while the book refers to the show's characters by their nicknames, Zoo refers to them throughout the book by their first names, which we were never privy to, so it was difficult to keep straight in some cases whom she was thinking about. (I'm hoping that might be caught in the last round of edits before publication.)

This is a thought-provoking, well-written, and emotionally satisfying book. It may not necessarily surprise, but it definitely will make you think, and perhaps look at your favorite reality shows a little differently.

NetGalley and Random House Publishing Group — Ballantine provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this book as well. I like that you wrote about the balance that the author stuck between light hearted and more heavy material. I was surprised to lol a couple of times while reading : ) great review!