Alexandra Oliva offers smooth, interesting prose and credible characters. Unfortunately, her plot is more suitable to flash fiction, or a short story at best. Not only did I not find the premise uninteresting, virtually every turn of The Last One is predictable from the first chapter on. Nothing that happens is the least surprising, from the romantic interest to the ending. Group filming scenes alternate with post-epidemic scenes following one character. While we’re meant to be busily figuring out which one she is, I simply couldn’t generate the interest, for much as genuine reality shows don’t appeal to me. While one could argue that Oliva is also making a subtle satirical point (that if we feel superior to the character – who doesn’t realize the show is over, and the devastation she sees is real – then we’re no better than the reality show audience), I didn’t much care.
While much of the writing is genuinely good, Oliva stumbles with her early characterization and description. While she makes a point about the show’s producers and audience treating the contestants as archetypes rather than individuals, Oliva doesn’t do much better. For one thing, it’s off-putting that characters with darkish skin are mocha, panther-dark, tilled earth, while whites and Asians are simply white or Asian. It’s a change from stories in which only the skin-color of non-whites is noted (which sometimes happens here as well), but it’s not better. Similarly, we’re treated to a lot of description of breasts and bras. It’s meant as a comment on the show’s producers, editors, and audience, but it’s still focusing on sexual characteristics of women and not of men. With over a dozen characters, it takes Oliva quite a while to dig herself out of this hole.
While the prose flows well, at times it becomes clinical, dry, and labored. Some aspects that are meant to be dramatic (such as a cabin the protagonist encounters early on) are obvious and heavy-handed. The use of present tense throughout becomes wearing, since it adds little to the story. The character herself, with her constantly repeated themes and tropes, becomes tiring. Some of the situations she faces feel more manufactured than organic.
Overall, the book is less speculative satire than opportunistic drama. Here’s hoping that Oliva applies her talent to a larger, more fulfilling story the next time.