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.

book review: If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio

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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.

+ link to review on goodreads