Genetic engineering and mutations are a staple of fiction; think The Island of Dr. Moreau, Brave New World or, more recently, Jurassic Park. Ramona Ausubel’s sparkling novel The Last Animal focuses on a young scientist’s impulsive attempt to revive an extinct species and the impact this has on her children, who are traumatized by the accidental death of their father.
Graduate student Jane is the only female member of a scientific team working in the Arctic Circle, searching for traces of the wooly mammoth and hoping to reignite an ecosystem that could possibly reverse the effects of global warming. She is accompanied (begrudgingly) by her two teenage daughters, the fiery, sarcastic Eve and sweetly obedient Vera. The girls crave routine and stability, and they are fiercely protective of their mother as well as each other.
Eve and Vera’s accidental discovery of a perfectly preserved baby mammoth in the Siberian permafrost brings a flurry of excitement. But once back at the University of California, Berkeley, Jane is still washing pipettes in the lab while research grants are handed out to her male colleagues. At a departmental fundraiser, Jane has a chance encounter with a glamorous woman named Helen, who has a palatial estate and home zoo in Italy, complete with giraffes and an elephant. This leads to Jane implanting a genetically modified embryo, based on the baby mammoth’s DNA, into Helen’s elephant. The next thing you know, Jane and her daughters are flying to Lake Como to meet an animal that’s been extinct for hundreds of years.
The Last Animal whizzes around the planet—from the steppes of Siberia to the shores of Iceland to a remote alpine village—with a dizzying, almost madcap speed, but at the novel’s heart are the deep ties between mother and daughters, sister and sister, human and animal. Though Jane, Eve and Vera are grieving, they never lose their sense of adventure and love of scientific discovery. Ausubel crafts this moving story with wit and depth, allowing readers to witness a family drawn together by both loss and a sense of wonder at an ever-changing planet.