If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio
US pub date: April 11, 2017
I was really looking forward to reading this (having followed this author on various social media for a while now), and it did not disappoint. If We Were Villains is an intelligent and moving story about friendship, passion, guilt, and the role Shakespeare played in all of the above for a group of seven student actors in their final year at the fictional Dellecher Classical Conservatory. This group of friends has spent years playing the same roles over and over onstage and off, but when their instructors decide to mix up their casting, cracks begin to form in their carefully constructed group dynamic, and in a few short months, one of them ends up dead. Oliver Marks is convicted and spends ten years in prison, but it’s only after he’s released that he’s ready to tell the truth about what happened that night.
If you’ve seen the comparisons to The Secret History, you’ll know to expect plenty of character drama and academic geekery, and a bit of murder, but the comparisons stop there. Despite the fact that these characters have long conversations speaking only in Shakespeare quotes, If We Were Villains is actually a lot less pretentious than The Secret History (I say this with love – I adore The Secret History). The characters in If We Were Villains are much more likable, too, for the most part. I felt their youth much more acutely than I did with Donna Tartt’s characters, who all seemed larger than life and at times much older than college-age. Rio creates a host of characters who are are each in their own way memorable, vulnerable, and sympathetic. This is every bit as much a coming of age story as it is a thriller – probably more so. The twists were mostly easy to guess a mile off, but it didn’t matter, because I was so immersed in these characters that I found it gratifying to watch their story unfold.
Rio’s prose flows with a natural elegance, and although Shakespeare himself does a lot of the legwork (his quotes infusing this narrative with such frequency) Rio holds her own. One word I’d use to describe this book is ‘concise’: not a word is out of place; not a scene is extraneous. It’s a relatively short novel, but it doesn’t feel underdeveloped, because Rio succinctly shows us everything we need to see in order to form the full picture. And it’s a gorgeous picture – the setting of Dellecher is so vivid that I truly felt transported straight into this world, straight into that castle-like dormitory by the lake, straight into that world of Shakespearean drama.
People tend to be very polarized about Shakespeare. Love him or hate him, everyone has a rather strong opinion. I think I’m in the minority in falling somewhere in the middle: I’ve enjoyed the Shakespeare productions I’ve seen but I don’t actively seek them out; I mostly like reading his work, but again, don’t make it a priority. So I’m going to actually argue that you don’t need to be a Shakespeare aficionado to enjoy If We Were Villains. Does having a love of Shakespeare enrich the overall experience of reading this novel? Undoubtedly. This is a book for Bardolators, first and foremost, and if you love Shakespeare, you should pick this up immediately. Rio’s extensive knowledge shines through every inch of this narrative. But there is a sort of universality to the passion that these students display, and the Shakespeare is adequately contextualized, so that it’s possible to get something from this book even if you aren’t intimately familiar with the plays these students perform.
This novel isn’t without faults, of course. The descriptions of the performances themselves tend to be rather indulgent and don’t do much to propel the narrative forward. The concept of each of these productions is gorgeous (and I’d love to see Rio direct them!) but for such a short novel, I’d rather have spent that time focusing on other things.
I do have another complaint having to do with a sudden shift in a certain character’s behavior, and not fully understanding the impetus behind that (keeping this deliberately vague for fear of spoilers). There was something about this characterization – and the way the rest of the group reacted to it – that felt a bit like a plot device designed to move the rest of the narrative forward. From that point on the story and characters resumed their believability, but I did have this one moment in particular where I found myself thinking ‘I’m not buying this.’ But ultimately there was enough that I liked about this novel to compensate for this one element.
A solid 4.5 stars. This is a really stunning debut that forces the reader to think about guilt and culpability; about youth and passion; and about art and life and the way the two coexist so intensely. I loved reading this and I’d highly recommend it to anyone with a fierce love of the humanities – and in particular, of course, Shakespeare.
I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Netgalley, Flatiron Books, and M. L. Rio.