The Last One is a survival thriller novel from Alexandra Oliva, which also happens to be her first one. It’s the story of a reality television show much like Survivor or Naked and Afraid, where a group of contestants attempt to endure psychological manipulation and harsh conditions in order to win a cash prize and, for some, a new faith in themselves. Oliva documents the television show from two perspectives, swapping back and forth over the course of the book: one gives the reader a straightforward narrative from a TV producer’s perspective, showing how troublesome and wily reality television can be; the other comes from a woman nicknamed Zoo, the main protagonist of the novel as she struggles through the game show and then, unknowingly, a mysterious plague that wipes out much of humanity.
Oliva’s writing excels when she’s dealing with the human aspects of her characters, especially Zoo. The book’s most effective moments come from her melding of various personalities in the game show itself, forcing people from different cultures to work together, and then intentionally pushing them apart. This comes from her perceptions of the ethical gray area encompassing reality TV, where producers push participants to their limits as a way to ensure good entertainment. While Oliva’s focus is on Zoo, she does give readers a chance to see the other characters from Zoo’s perspective, further distancing the reader from how television production attempts to quantify and stereotype its cast members.
Zoo herself is a character struggling with her personal life, unsure whether she wants to give up whatever freedom she has in order to have a child. Her participation in the television show is meant to test herself and also be a last spontaneous challenge to herself before settling, and Oliva delves into the nearing-middle-aged dilemma of choosing adulthood and its responsibilities over recreational freedom.
But Zoo is also a difficult character for audiences to like, especially because throughout most of the novel she’s overwhelmingly off-putting. Part of that is because Oliva is hoping audiences will see a shift in her character over time as she begins to see the worth in settling down with her husband rather than opting for the next adventure. The game show is a breaking point for her, but it’s really her experiences after – when she believes she’s still playing the game and actually experiencing post-apocalyptic survival – that she understands what it means to yearn for family life.
Oliva’s writing is good, but The Last One often can’t find a good balance between its two narrative styles. The game show pieces are set in the past, prior to Zoo’s narratives; they help to tell the story of how Zoo got to her current situations. But besides painting a rather grim picture of reality television production, they’re somewhat unnecessary to the story at hand, and they read like bland script notes because of that style of perspective. This means that The Last One is often poorly balanced, hobbling during its pre-apocalypse moments until Zoo’s narrative can pick things back up.
The bigger problem for readers, though, will be suspension of disbelief. Zoo is unable to determine reality game show setup from reality, and once things get more chaotic, it becomes obvious to the reader that Zoo is no longer part of a television show but simply surviving in real life. It’s hard to believe that this smart and industrious woman would be unable to understand this, but Oliva relies on something like post-traumatic stress and the fact that Zoo wants to believe it’s all not real to get by this dilemma.
The Last One is an entertaining, if somewhat frustrating, reading experience, but as a debut author, Oliva has done solid work to ensure her career’s forward trajectory. The book is a quick read, and its character work is one of its strongest points; that’s a good sign for a budding writer, and hopefully this isn’t Oliva’s last book.