Review: If We Were Villains ~ by M.L. Rio
354 pages ~ Adult Fiction, Academia
2017~ Flatiron Books
My Rating: 4/5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Enter the players. There were seven of us then, seven bright young things with wide precious futures ahead of us. Until that year, we saw no further than the books in front of our faces.
On the day Oliver Marks is released from jail, the man who put him there is waiting at the door. Detective Colborne wants to know the truth, and after ten years, Oliver is finally ready to tell it.
Ten years ago: Oliver is one of seven young Shakespearean actors at Dellecher Classical Conservatory, a place of keen ambition and fierce competition. In this secluded world of firelight and leather-bound books, Oliver and his friends play the same roles onstage and off: hero, villain, tyrant, temptress, ingénue, extra. But in their fourth and final year, the balance of power begins to shift, good-natured rivalries turn ugly, and on opening night real violence invades the students’ world of make believe. In the morning, the fourth-years find themselves facing their very own tragedy, and their greatest acting challenge yet: convincing the police, each other, and themselves that they are innocent.
Part coming-of-age story, part confession, If We Were Villains explores the magical and dangerous boundary between art and life. In this tale of loyalty and betrayal, madness and ecstasy, the players must choose what roles to play before the curtain falls.
“You can justify anything is you do it poetically enough”
There is so much to love about this novel. I am a giant theater nerd, I love Shakespeare, and I loved getting a glimpse into the dark side of this seeming perfect academic world of art and classical scholarship. The aesthetic definitely made my little heart happy. As much as I loved the mood and the mystery element, there were some issues that kept it from being a 5 star read for me. Below were some high points and low points for me:
- The discussion of how art imitates life and vice/versa. This was by far my favorite element of the book and I think that the author did a really great job playing with this theme throughout the book. The actors themselves are constantly playing a role, even off stage. So much of who they become is influenced by the roles they are assigned. The martyr, the villain, the savor, ect. “Was I not always his right-hand man, his lieutenant? Banquo or Benvolio or Oliver- little difference.”
- The appreciation for the power of words was another cool theme that kept coming up: “How could we explain that standing on a stage and speaking someone else’s words as if they are your own is less an act of bravery than a desperate lunge at mutual understanding? An attempt to forge that tenuous link between speaker and listener and communicate something, anything, of substance.”
- “I need language to live, like food- lexemes and morphemes and morsels of meaning nourish me with the knowledge that, yes, there is a word for this. Someone else has felt it before.”
- The detailed description of the Dellecher Conversatory, the costumes, the sets, the plays (especially the Halloween Macbeth scene), the old “castle” that the fourth-years live in- I ate up all of this detail and it really set the perfect mood and background for the dark tale.
- I liked Rio’s decision to write certain scenes as if they were a play themselves, this was a cool stylistic feature – a play within a play.
- Some of the banter between the characters is very cheesy at times. They sometimes hold full conversations only using lines from Shakespeare’s plays. I get that they are Shakespearean scholars and actors, but what 20-somethings talk like this? At one point, one of the characters actually has a nervous breakdown while spouting nothing but lines from their past plays. This was a little unbelievable for me.
- Towards the beginning of the novel there is a lot of foreshadowing and it felt very over the top. I kept thinking, “ok we get it, something bad is going to happen.”
- Relationships between characters felt disingenuous at times. A lot of the time the reader is told rather than shown how these characters feel about one another, so it became a little difficult for me to believe in the full force of their feelings.
Overall, I really did enjoy the novel. I would recommend it to fellow theater nerds, fans of Shakespeare, and anyone who also enjoys the darker side of academic life. However, I would caution readers who are not familiar with the general plots of most of Shakespeare’s works because they might be a little lost when reading this novel. Plays and characters are referred to so often that if you were not familiar, you might spend a lot of time googling. I have read all of the plays that they refer to and I still had to rely on google a few times. I would also suggest reading Donna Tartt’s The Secret History first, if you haven’t already. It is a much better version of this same type of narrative. As always, I would love your thoughts! Happy reading!