Resurrecting a mammoth — and a family — in Ramona Ausubel’s wild and woolly new novel

An author in profile with very curly dark blonde hair wearing black against a gray background.`
Ramona Ausubel’s latest novel, “The Last Animal,” covers grief, climate change and an adorable baby mammoth.
(Beowulf Sheehan)


The Last Animal

By Ramona Ausubel
Riverhead: 288 pages, $28

If you buy books linked on our site, The Times may earn a commission from, whose fees support independent bookstores.

Full disclosure(s): One, I’ve been a fan of Ramona Ausubel’s crazy-good novels and short stories since 2012, when the former Southern California resident burst, as they say, onto the literary scene with “No One Is Here Except All of Us.” (Another novel and two story collections quickly followed.)

Two, my Ausubel fandom is notable because I’m not a fan of the “genre” fiction devices — sci-fi, magical realism — that Ausubel often employs. I like novels set in familiar geographical-emotional-historical territory. I’m generally more interested in adult human problems and architectures than those of nature or teenagers. So I worried I might not love Ausubel’s new novel, “The Last Animal,” which opens in permafrost-bitten Siberia; is informed by equal parts rigorous scientific research and wild speculation; and features teenage protagonists.

Yet love it I did. Devour it I did. Recommend it to everyone, I do.

Wealthy characters, from Gatsby to Mr. Darcy to Miss Havisham, were once a fiction staple.

June 17, 2016

As has been recognized by many critics and award-bestowers before me, Ausubel is a supernaturally gifted writer whose heart, soul, wit and intellect are evident in every wacky setting, character and plot line she weaves. Few authors can do what she does, seemingly effortlessly: spin saucy yet kind-spirited social satire while exploring a multitude of topical and archetypal subjects — all within a single work, all in sentences that sing.

book cover for 'The Last Animal,' by Ramona Ausubel
(Riverhead Books)

As evidence, I offer excerpts from a single page of “The Last Animal.” Here Ausubel depicts the arrival in Siberia of an American research crew who’s come to gather samples from which they hope to re-create prehistoric mammals that might protect the melting permafrost from global warming. The crew includes the book’s three heroines: recently widowed paleobiology grad student Jane, who has been dogged by sexism in her male-dominated field, and her two feisty, fatherless daughters, Eve, 15, and Vera, 13. The novel is narrated by alternating points of view; the arrival scene belongs to Vera.

“Watching the people disembark was a herd of something very big, great hairy bodies and horns,” Ausubel writes. “When Vera stepped out, the ground was spongy and dark. There was a grassy smell, the long-ago seeping out of the earth. … One animal hoofed at the ground, eyes on Vera, who reached a hand toward her big sister. The thing was ancient and matted and seemed made-up, like a great blanket with legs.”

And tucked into the scene, a reminiscence of home: “In Berkeley everyone was gluten-free or vegan or lactose-intolerant or avoided nightshades. Even the teenagers ordered cold-pressed green juice instead of coffee (or they ordered coffee but it was single-origin and fair-trade and the cup arrived with a perfect leaf in the organic, grass-fed foam).”

You see what I’m saying: The long-ago seeping out of the earth. A great blanket with legs. And far away, a simulacrum of nature: a perfect leaf crafted in grass-fed foam.

Lydia Millet, whose latest novel, “A Children’s Bible,” tackled climate change, reads new fiction on climate and argues against calling it a genre.

July 7, 2021

Just because Ausubel is a stylist, don’t mistake her for an author who favors literary pyrotechnics over plot. The novel’s precipitating event happens 25 pages in, when Eve and Vera devise an outlet for their separate and conjoined grief. (“They had already gone a year with no father and they would never have one again. That fact took Vera’s breath away every time she remembered it.”) After a miles-long hike to the tundra’s dunes, the two girls attack the sand in bursts of sorrow and anger, personal and political. “Vera kicked at the black dune … she wanted erosion. She wanted minor harm.”

“Will our generation be the last on the planet?” Eve asks.

“Maybe not the very last,” her older sister answers. “But our kids might not make it.”

Eve’s foot connects with something hard. She and Vera start digging and don’t stop until they uncover something “sad and beautiful and perfect”: an intact, frozen, 200-pound baby mammoth, soon to be nicknamed “Pearl.” They drag the thawing creature back to their mother, to the scientists. For one euphoric moment, it seems the girls have changed the trajectory of their mother’s misogyny-impaired life — and the planet’s.


But then, back in the States at an Academy of Science gala, Jane, Eve and Vera watch, horrified, as Jane’s male colleagues claim the discovery was theirs. “My entire job is to tell you that it’s all okay, but it’s not. I’m not,” Jane fumes to Eve and Vera later that night. “I am expected to wear a dress with a low neckline and I am dismissed for wearing a dress with a low neckline. … I hate that I have dragged you here to see me humiliated. Again.” As Jane’s daughters beg their mother not to give up, the reader senses their yearning for their mother to protect herself from a world that stole their discovery and their father, so next time she might also protect them.

Post-humiliation, Jane is approached by multimillionaire Helen, who flies mother and daughters first to Iceland, then to her exotic animal preserve in Italy — and to the moon, promising to help Jane regain ownership of the genetic advances made possible by Pearl’s unearthing. No spoilers here, but if Helen seems too good to be true, your suspicions might be satisfyingly confirmed.

Your ultimate L.A. Bookhelf is here — a guide to the 110 essential L.A. books, plus essays, supporting quotes and a ranked list of the best of the best.

April 13, 2023

Classic Ausubel, “The Last Animal” is many things. A mother-daughter love story. A global-warming warning. A fabulist fantasy. A sci-fi eco-scheme. A coming-of-age duet. A feminist critique of workplace misogyny. A study of grief. Even if none of these genres are your jam, I suggest you do what I do when approaching a work of Ausubel’s. Forget everything you think you know about your reading tastes, sink into her weird world and prepare to fall in love with a 4,000-year-old baby mammoth.

Maran, the author of “The New Old Me” and a dozen other books, lives in Silver Lake.