on rereading If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

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IF WE WERE VILLAINS by M.L. Rio
★★★★☆
Flatiron Books, 2017

 

I do not reread books very frequently; between having a pretty decent memory and being in a constant state of intimidation regarding my TBR I rarely feel compelled to revisit books I’ve already read, especially if they aren’t all-time favorites.  If We Were Villains falls into that category; I first read it as an ARC in 2017 (original review here – from before I was any good at writing reviews, hah) and I really enjoyed it – I found it fun and compelling and moving, but it wasn’t a book that I actually expected to revisit at any point.

Cue the unexpected plot twist where I would spend most of 2020 injecting Shakespeare straight into my veins.  If you do go back and read my not very good original review, you’ll see that I actually talk about my opinions on Shakespeare, which were, at the time, middling – in the sense that I had a couple of Shakespeare plays I loved, and I typically enjoyed the productions I’ve gotten the chance to see, but until this year Shakespeare had never been a very big part of my life.  Now (in case you haven’t been following my recent obsession), a group of friends and I spend every Saturday evening performing a different Shakespeare play over Zoom, and I thought that revisiting If We Were Villains in this context would make for a more exciting reading experience than it was for me in 2017.

And yes, it certainly was.  Despite having more issues with this book the second time around – I’ll get to that in a second – I had so much fun with this.  Obviously an informal production over Zoom is not the same as intensive study at a Shakespearean academy, but still; I felt so much more engaged in the drama surrounding character types since I was able to quickly mentally sort every single person in our group into one of the seven types Rio presented (I’m James, if anyone was wondering).  The constant quoting of Shakespeare too took on a whole new life for me; I’ve only been doing this since March, and still I find myself quoting Shakespeare out of context in my daily life.  Yes, the extent that these characters do it is deliberately heightened to the point of being unrealistic, but they’ve also immersed themselves in intensive Shakespearean study every day for four years so I’ll give them a pass.

The one issue I had that I wanted to talk about in some detail is the rather uninspiring treatment of gender.  First to give some context: there are seven fourth year students, 4 boys and 3 girls.  One girl (Wren) is always cast as the ingenue, another (Meredith) as the temptress, and the third girl (Filippa) is put wherever they need a spare actor, either in a male role or a female one.  Filippa constantly laments that she doesn’t have the opportunity to play more female roles; Wren and Meredith are both content with the roles they get cast in.

Now, here’s the thing.  At the beginning of the novel, they’re doing Julius Caesar, and a very big deal is made of the fact that Richard, playing Caesar, doesn’t have anything to do after act 3 when Caesar is killed.  No mention is made of the fact that Wren and Meredith, playing Portia and Calpurnia respectively, are each only in two scenes, and neither returns after act 2.  Calpurnia only has 27 lines (compare to Caesar’s 151 and Brutus’s 721).  Yet both Wren and Meredith are perfectly content with their roles, which they’re implied to have auditioned for, and Filippa’s only grievance is that she can’t play a woman.

This is what I don’t understand.  This is a college production at an experimental arts academy – why in god’s name would none of these three young women audition for Brutus or Cassius?  Why is Filippa more bothered by the fact that she has a male role than a small role?  What performer on earth – regardless of gender – would rather play Calpurnia than Caesar?  And if Rio wanted to fall back on the excuse that this was the 90s and things were altogether less progressive, fine, or even that women are more accustomed to keeping their mouths shut when they get shafted, I’d get it; what I find disingenuous is that this is never addressed.  A lot is made of the male characters’ discontent with the roles they end up playing, but I found the complacency of the female characters incredibly unrealistic.  And you can’t argue that this is besides the point of the novel when the entire premise is rooted in tension over casting.

This isn’t a criticism that overpowered the rest of my reading experience, but it was in the back of my mind pretty much the whole time that I read. But that said, this is a book I really enjoy engaging with and I can see myself returning to it again and again as my own personal relationship with Shakespeare and performing evolves.

16 thoughts on “on rereading If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

  1. I hadn’t read this or heard of it but this is a really interesting review. The treatment of gender definitely seems unfortunate. My sister did a lot of acting at university, including a number of Shakespeare plays, and adored being cast in male roles (she was Boy – as well as Catherine – in Henry V and Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night!)

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    • You should read it, I’d be very curious to hear your thoughts! Regardless of where you ultimately settle with it, it’s a campus novel with murder so I think you’d have a really good time with it.

      It’s a sad truth that male Shakespeare parts are just better! (There are maybe, what, ten or so exceptions? Absolutely NONE OF WHICH are in Julius Caesar.) Ooh Boy and Catherine/Katharine/whatever – that’s a fun combo! Boy is a great role. When I started doing this Project Shakespeare thing I thought I’d prefer playing women just because performing femininity is a comfort zone for me, lol, but my favorite roles I’ve played are hands down Edmund and Romeo, so. I can’t imagine being content with only playing Shakespearean women!

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  2. I’m actually re-reading If We Were Villains right now too, despite not being a huge re-reader myself. I convinced my best friend to read it and she sucked me into a buddy-read which has been really fun so far. Your point about the roles that the girls are cast in is really interesting. I’m not super familiar with Caesar as a play so I wouldn’t have realised how small their roles actually are without you pointing it out. Definitely something that Rio could’ve explore further in text.

    P.S. Your Shakespeare-via-Zoom plays sound AMAZING. What a fantastic idea.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oooh serendipity! That’s cool!

      The first time I read IWWV, Julius Caesar was the one play I wasn’t familiar with. But I just read it a couple of weeks ago (and adored it, highly recommend!) so the disparity in role sizes REALLY jumped out at me this time around. Following Rio’s casting logic, it would have made MUCH more sense for a second or third year to play Calpurnia and for Meredith to play Mark Antony, and it is just so bizarre to me that that possibility is never even discussed. (Not even solely because of role sizes – obviously there are small roles that are still juicy – but Brutus, Cassius, Caesar, and Antony are all INCREDIBLE parts and Portia and Calpurnia are ridiculously anemic in comparison. Why ANY fourth year performer would be happy to settle for Calpurnia while Antony – a similarly fiery character – is given to a third year is just… beyond me.)

      Oh it’s been SO MUCH FUN. If you have a group of friends who’d be into that thing, I highly highly recommend it!

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  3. I’ve been meaning to read this one for ages! The fact that I haven’t been that into Shakespeare has been a bit of a hang-up, but the Secret History comparison has had me so intrigued. I’m also glad to see that it mostly held up for you on the second read, other than the weird gender issue! (Julius Caesar is one of the few Shakespeare plays I know fairly well- who would rather play Calpurnia than Caesar indeed!) Great review!

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  4. I bought the book because of you, I stil have to read it. I did some theater a long time ago and I didn’t play Shakespeare, only modern plays and boys played boys and girls played girls. But the number of lines were pretty much the same. It’s interesting how our reading and analysis of a book has changed over the years, being more conscious of this disparities.

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  5. I didn’t think of the gender issue at all when reading, which is pretty weird – but I guess not knowing the plays helped with those issues going completely over my head. Also, I’m jealous that you have a decent memory. I finish a book an immediately forget title, plot, characters, ending and the language I read it in. Every re-read is a brand new experience. (I’m only mildly exaggerating)

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