May 04, 2017

If We Were Villains - M.L. Rio

Flatiron Books, April 11, 2017.

Four Stars

If We Were Villains follows seven close-knit students, seniors in a prestigious acting program, as they fall into their very own Shakespearean tragedy. Studying at the elite Dellecher Classical Conservatory, the students are immersed in the plays of Shakespeare, secluded from reality in a suitably castle-like dormitory, reading antique leather-bound editions and drinking expensive whiskey in front of roaring fires. While not exactly comparable to most post-secondary education experiences, the dramatic world of these students is easy to become immersed in, especially as the lines between fiction and reality begin to blur.

The story is narrated by Oliver, an outsider among the group because he is merely upper-middle-class, as opposed to the vast wealth of his friends. As the novel opens, Oliver is just being released from prison, as a result of an incident that took place ten years previous at Dellecher. Detective Colborne, the officer that originally investigated the students, is ready to retire, but he is desperate to know who really committed the crime to which Oliver confessed. Oliver is finally ready to tell the truth, but even he does not know the whole story of what transpired on that fateful night.

The novel is set out in five acts, mirroring the structure of a Shakespearean play. As the students take on the roles they are assigned in plays such as MacBeth and Julius Caesar, they become so involved that their characters begin to cross over into real life – they take on frightening aspects of the heroes, villains and temptresses that Shakespeare imagined. Unsurprisingly, the violence of the plays soon spills over into their lives until a real tragedy occurs, shaking up their small community. Each of the seven is a witness to what happened, but only a few of them know who did it – and there are always more secrets to be exposed.

Although it is being compared strongly to The Secret History, this novel is really quite a basic whodunnit, embellished with excessive Shakespeare quotes – his words are not only sprinkled into everyday conversation, they actually form the majority of conversations between the seven friends. The result is affected and pretentious, but I think it was meant to be that way – like many of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, Oliver and his friends are too overwhelmed by their own hubris to see what’s happening right in front of them. And of course, the unlikableness of the characters always makes them more interesting.

I struggled with how to rate this novel, because there are certainly problems with it, and I did set it aside for a few days – but ultimately, it was entertaining enough that I felt compelled to finish Oliver’s confession. The thoughtful and intelligent concept of this novel outweighs any problems with its execution, and I will certainly continue to read Rio’s future novels, to see what she comes up with next.

I received this book from Flatiron Books and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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