Immediately upon seeing the details of M. L. Rio’s debut novel, If We Were Villains, I was sold. Honestly, had I known relatively little about the story, I would have been sold on the cover alone – just look at it! But the fact that it’s a mystery about a group of Shakespearean actors intrigued me. And the blurb by one of my favorite authors – Emily St. John Mandel – definitely caught my eye. Needless to say, my expectations for this book were (probably unfairly) high. And yet, it did not disappoint.
(From Goodreads) 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.
I loved this book. I knew within about ten pages that I was going to like this book, and I was right. The writing is brilliant, M. L. Rio’s master’s in Shakespeare studies entirely evident. It’s compulsively readable, and while that is largely due to the story, it’s the mechanics that keep it flowing. Rio manages to strike that difficult balance of writing great enough that I notice it, but not so overly written that it distracts from the story.
This is a very character-centric book, and the characters are incredible. The story is told from the perspective of Oliver Marks, but we get to know his six peers very intimately. Each one is distinctive and memorable, and I honestly can’t decide who my favorite is. I really enjoyed the friendship between the students, individually and as a whole. Each relationship in this book – whether romantic or platonic – is complex and realistic and interesting. Granted, these characters are more dramatic than people you might know in real life, but as someone who worked in a theater for years, I have definitely seen those who are a bit too affected by what they do on stage. One of the things I loved most about the characters is that most, if not all, of them are sexually fluid. While only one character is labeled as gay (and later, in one of my favorite moments of the novel, describes himself as ‘sexually amphibious’) many of the other characters find themselves questioning their sexuality in a way that felt incredibly authentic. In so many various ways, the characters were simply human, and it made for a very enjoyable reading experience.
What elevated this story from a four-star read to a five-star one, for me, was Shakespeare. I am definitely a fan of the Bard, and loved how integrated his writing was into the story. Rio’s characters often blur with the characters they play, and are affected by the plots they recreate. Shakespeare isn’t just mentioned in this book, his writing is almost a character in an of itself, and it is brilliant! I will say, that M. L. Rio definitely has an exhaustive knowledge of Shakespeare (obviously), and someone who isn’t very familiar with his writing may not quite understand some of the subtleties of this book. I took a graduate course in Shakespeare about a year ago, and am familiar with most of the plays mentioned in the book, and even I had to stop and think about their meanings within the context of this book. So you may want to brush up on your Shakespeare before picking up this book. (Both endeavors are entirely worth it, so don’t let that dissuade you.)
I thought If We Were Villains was incredible! I absolutely loved everything about it, and am already looking forward to reading M. L. Rio’s next book! I highly recommend picking this one up if you like theater or mysteries. And if you like The Secret History by Donna Tartt, you definitely need to give this one a shot.
If We Were Villains will be available in bookstores starting April 11th. You can order your copy of If We Were Villains on Amazon now!
To get the audiobook for free, sign up for a free trial of Audible (using this link) and choose If We Were Villains as one of your two free books (which you get to keep even if you cancel).
Thanks to Flatiron Books for generously providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my unbiased review.
P.S. Keep an eye out later this month for a post including a piece I wrote for my graduate Shakespeare class – I actually think it suits If We Were Villains pretty well!