A massive cheese-fest from start to finish, except that it breaks the golden rule of reality dating shows: Never trash talk the women who participate.
Anyone who knows me, or really anyone who follows me on Twitter for any length of time, could tell you I love watching reality shows on love and dating. Some people follow sport, I live tweet The Bachelor. And believe me when I say, I play to win. (I have my eye on you and your recaps McAlister!)
But, thanks to a new work opportunity, I’ve had to forego my favourite bloodsport. So imagine my ABSOLUTE JOY when I came across Danielle Allen’s The One, a romance novel set in the strange and fabulous world of a Bachelor-esque dating show!
Zoe Jordan is a law graduate, all set to take the bar exam. Except just as it hits crunch time, bails. While nervously preparing to admit to her parents about her freak out, she receives a letter saying she’s got an interview/screen test type thing, for super popular dating reality show ‘The One’. The only problem? She knows she didn’t apply. In actual fact, Koko, her best friend and the show’s new makeup artist, secretly submitted her application as a joke. But now Zoe has a great excuse to give her parents for skipping the bar. She’s going compete with eleven other women for the attention and love of an eligible bachelor — Julian Winters, music producer, songwriter, and total babe.
Right from the start, this book felt like it was my scene. Zoe is smart, she has ambition, she’s got a biting wit, and an exasperating ability to self-sabotage. I was geared up and ready to see her rediscover her power while chilling with a bunch of women (including her best friend) on the set of a super-cheesy show. Sadly, I came to find that this book and I just didn’t have enough chemistry. We didn’t connect. We weren’t together for the Right Reasons™ .
My biggest problem with The One is that it negates my golden rule of reality dating shows: Never trash talk the women who participate. Zoe is set up as a ‘not like other girls’ contestant. Not only did she not WANT to apply to be on the show, she doesn’t bond with the other women in any meaningful way, and in fact develops accidental rivalries due to her non-engagement. And maybe I could’ve overlooked the way the other women were constantly set up as foils to Zoe, if she hadn’t been so prone to referring to them as ‘bitches’.
In fact, to begin with, Zoe doesn’t bother to learn anyone else’s name unless absolutely necessary, as she explains to her roommate Maya on the first official night of filming:
“Two things … where did you get that?” She pointed at my drink. “And what is this argument about?”
I pointed to the little nook on the other side of the patio. “Bar is over there. Bartender is Bart. He’s sweet. And this fight is because Tori and some of the others were just being shitty to the two women who are by the fire pit now.” I shook my head. “This is why I don’t bother learning names.”
And frankly, I find it difficult to cheer for someone who can’t be bothered learning the names of the other eleven women she’s living with (however temporarily that might be). Though apparently she could be bothered to learn the bartender’s name?
I’ll be honest, at this point I knew this wasn’t the book for me, and really should’ve started the process of Conscious Uncoupling, a la Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin, right then. But I stuck with it and became progressively more frustrated. Because, along with Zoe’s distorted performance of feminism, there was one other big hurdle I struggled with: the logistics and production of the show this book was set in.
Yes, I’m probably thinking about this way too hard, but with the popularity of reality TV, most (if not all) readers would be familiar with how they’re made. Add in the success of UnReal, and the sheer longevity of The Bachelor, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t have at least a rudimentary understanding of the behind-the-scenes process of reality dating shows, specifically. So the fact that in Allen’s book the eliminated women have to stay in a separate mansion until the season is finished filming? Nope. Not a thing. It’s actually ridiculous. And that they are also watching new episodes aired each week while they stay in the Mansion of Rejection™? Also not a thing. Also ridiculous.
Literally no reality show has that quick of a turnaround, precisely because the people who participate can’t afford to stick around after filming. And the shows can’t afford to pay them enough to make it worth their while. As much as I loved the idea of these women, who have insider knowledge of a show like this, all sitting around trash-talking, it just doesn’t make sense. Plus it’s way more fun, conceptually speaking, if they were doing it because they’ve remained friends, rather than the idea that they’re victims of proximity and total media/social media blackouts. I’m sure a show like this, and the very unique stresses it puts on you, has the potential to be a bonding experience. But this particular conceit didn’t work for me at all.
I should say, I completely understand the irony of wanting something more realistic from a book set on a reality dating show, which by its very nature is completely unrealistic. I also know that some (read: most) people wouldn’t even be bothered by the lack of realism. In fact, normally I’m the last person to hold realistic-ness against a book. But I feel like Allen took a lot of shortcuts to get me to believe in Zoe and Julian as a couple, and I needed a stronger foundation if I was going to suspend my disbelief much further.
So all this aside, there were a couple of aspects about The One that I truly enjoyed. To start with, there’s a genuine attempt to show the way producers, directors and editors manipulate situations to turn the women into caricatures. Right from the start, Zoe and her roommate Maya are encouraged to ‘play up their personalities’ as a Black woman and Latina woman, respectively. The way that Zoe shuts that shit down immediately, and the simultaneous acknowledgement of the systemic race problem that shows like this have, gave me life. For real.
Also, Zoe’s friendship with Koko is so great, and I genuinely wish there had been more of it on the page.
I know I’ve devoted almost my entire review to discussions of either Zoe as a heroine, or reality dating shows as a setting and plot device, and absolutely zero time to Julian as a hero. The reason is I found him boring. I mean, yeah, he’s hot, he’s charming, he’s totally into Zoe, and the few times they’re able to sneak off and meet away from the cameras and other prying eyes are great, but ultimately I didn’t care about him. At all. I think in this one way The One was exactly like watching a regular reality dating show for me.
Ultimately, The One is a massive cheese-fest from start to finish. If you’re a reality show junkie and don’t mind a few liberties being taken when it comes to the reality side of things, you’ll probably enjoy it. It just didn’t work for me.
Content advisory: Contains a ‘not like other girls’ heroine, and probably has a hero, too? Although you might not have realised it going by this review.