First published July 12, 2016
My rating: 4 out of 5
Image from Goodreads
Thank you to NetGalley and Ballantine Books for providing an advance copy in exchange for an honest review!
The Short Of It:
This was a fast-paced apocalyptic thriller that combines a worldwide plague, woodland survival, and an inside look at the filming of a "reality" TV show. It was unique and gripping!
The Long Of It:
I will never be able to watch "Survivor" again without thinking back to "The Last One," an innovative book that meshes a hard-core survivalist reality show with an apocalyptic disease outbreak.
The book is told in intertwining narratives, and the first is a third-person perspective of the filming of "In the Dark," a reality show that centers on outdoor survival, though in a rather more extreme way than the shows we're used to. After some time as a group, the contestants separate for solo challenges that involve trekking alone through the woods for days. Unlike many reality shows on TV today, "In the Dark" has a super-fast turnaround time that insures viewers are watching in nearly real-time.
This half of the story was fascinating to me; it was a sort of behind-the-scenes look at all the manipulation and unreality that goes into filming a "reality" TV show. We all know by now that they're somewhat -- or completely -- scripted, and if you've ever suspected the producers of manufacturing drama and characters ("the villain," "the dumb blonde") by showing viewers specific clips and editing soundbites together in a deceptive way, you would be right -- at least according to "The Last One."
The other half of the novel is narrated by Zoo, one of the contestants on "In the Dark." We meet her when she's well underway on her solo challenges, and isolated in the woods she has no idea that disaster has befallen the world around her. Because she has no reason to suspect an apocalyptic event, she explains away every odd occurrence as part of the show, which is set up in part to test the contestants' mental and emotional fortitude. Zoo is determined, intelligent and capable, and she refuses to give up on what she thinks is still "In the Dark," trial after harrowing trial. Her sections of the novel are part psychological profile, part adventure story and part outdoor survival guide. And it is through Zoo's eyes that we understand the destruction the plague has wrought, though she believes it's all staged for the show.
Zoo, a cheerful and friendly woman who works at an animal rehabilitation center, sounds as though she'd be a pretty likeable character, but I had a hard time warming up to her. I just never felt that connection, maybe because Zoo's continued denial of circumstances eventually became irritating. And, despite being a devoted wife and generally nice person, she's kinda self-centered. I was also a little disappointed in the vague ending, which can be interpreted based on whether you're a pessimist or an optimist. I would've liked a more concrete resolution to Zoo's (physical and mental) journey. Another small gripe I had is that the characters are referred to by their typecast nickname in the chapters about the filming of the show ("Zoo," "Exorcist," "Carpenter Chick," "Black Doctor") and their real names in Zoo's sections, which added a bit of unnecessary confusion (though I can see why Oliva chose to do that, because it does add to her point about the artificiality of reality TV).
The publisher's blurb compares this book to "Station Eleven" and "The Passage," two books that I loved -- and while I enjoyed "The Last One" I didn't find that it had the beauty and magic of "Station Eleven" or the zombies, adrenaline-fueled plot and awesome writing of "The Passage." But, like both of those novels, "The Last One" is a intriguing twist on an apocalypse thriller and the unique storyline had me hooked from page 1. Definitely not the best novel I've read this year, but it was still a page-turner that'd be perfect for beach, pool or hammock reading this summer!