Stephanie Doyle’s The Contestant is set against the backdrop of a reality TV show. Fittingly, the book itself is much like most reality shows: easily digested, sporadically entertaining, but also rather empty and unsatisfying.
It gets off to a promising start. In the prologue, the author introduces us to Talia Mooney, an Olympic diver competing in Sydney at the 2000 Summer Olympics. This is told almost entirely in dialogue by two sports announcers who describe what’s happening as Talia competes in the final rounds, facing injury and obstacles in her improbable hunt for the gold. This opening was fast and exciting, and I settled in for a good read.
If only the present day action had been as interesting. After the Olympics, Talia retired from diving to focus on her college studies. Her father Colin was a dreamer who pushed her along to Olympic success, but now all she wants is a regular life with an ordinary job as an accountant. Then she learns that Colin, pursuing another one of his treasure-hunting schemes, borrowed $50,000 from a local loan shark. His treasure-hunting partner disappeared with the money, and now the loan shark wants his money back. In order to save her father from an unenviable fate, Talia needs to come up with the money fast.
The opportunity arises when Colin presents her with the application for the reality show Ultimate Endurance, where eight contestants will see who can last the longest on a remote tropical island. This didn’t seem like the best way to get the money if the loan shark was really breathing down Colin’s back. Even if she won, I believe she would have to wait until the show actually aired before receiving a check for her winnings, and who knows when that would be? But then, the reality show aspects of the story aren’t exactly the most convincing.
In any case, this is how Talia finds herself on a boat to a remote island in the South Pacific with seven others. There’s an arrogant geek who’s obviously hiding something in his backpack (In reality the show’s producers would have gone over the bag thoroughly before letting him bring it with him, discovering what is eventually revealed to be inside). There’s a vapid wannabe starlet, a sensible older woman, a lonely housewife, a man having a midlife crisis, and a retired military officer.
Then there’s Reuben Serrano, the designated alpha male. He’s rude, sexist and condescending to Talia, generally coming across as an absolute jerk. I found him completely charmless, but Talia belongs to that not-so-grand tradition of heroines who find boorishness hot. At least she admits her attraction for him is inexplicable. As she herself says, “She hated him, but she wanted him.” Evidently the reader is supposed to believe he’s so rough and uncouth that he appeals to some primitive side of her. When they finally have sex, they decide not to let a lack of birth control stand in their way: “What was happening between them was too primal for anything to interfere.” I’m sure plenty of children in this world were conceived because of that rationale, but such a reckless, stupid act didn’t win them any points with me. (I would comment on how unlikely it would be that two contestants on a reality show would be able to sneak away to have sex out of view of the cameras, but this show only has two cameramen. Again, it’s not realistic.)
The back cover mentions that a body turns up and Talia has to face the likelihood that someone on the island is a murderer. But it takes almost half the book for this to happen. Until that point, the story focuses on the characters on the reality show setting their camp in order and participating in some challenges. There are a few minor incidents to liven things up – sharks are spotted in the water while the contestants swim to the island, someone punches a hole in their water pot – but it’s not very compelling to read about. Though the author’s storytelling is generally smooth, it takes a while for the story to really get going.
Eventually the murder takes place, the characters discover they’re stuck on the island, and they run around suspecting each other of the crime. It moves quickly enough, there are some good action moments, and Talia is a fairly strong heroine when she’s not getting turned on by Reuben’s purported charms. But it’s never really all that exciting or suspenseful, and though I like a mystery featuring a group of people in an isolated location with a killer among them, the plot is handled weakly here. The supporting characters all have distinctive personalities, but the author’s attempts to make some of them look suspicious often fall flat. The clues and exposition are delivered with no subtlety whatsoever.
The Contestant sounded like a cool read, but it’s simply disappointing. Don’t be surprised if, like those reality shows, it leaves you hungry for something better and more filling when it’s over.