Title: IF WE WERE VILLAINS
Author: M.L. Rio
Release Date: 2017
Publisher: Flatiron Books
My Rating: ★★★★★(4.5/5)
Review on Goodreads
I’m not quite sure how to start this, because this book was an unexpected emotional roller coaster for me. It’s incredible to me that I started this book struggling to tell the characters apart and by the end I found myself loving each and every one of them. Inevitably, my review is not going to properly express the admiration I have for this book, which was all at once captivating, humorous, and tragic. I will do my best to express how much I loved it without spoiling anything, as I think this book is best read knowing as little about it as possible.
At Dellecher Classical Conservatory, an exclusive school for the arts, only Shakespeare is performed. Seven fourth-year theater students have played the same archetypes, both on and off the stage, throughout their years at Dellecher. In their fourth year, however, a reshuffling of the cast roles unsettles the carefully constructed dynamic in this group, and soon one of their number is dead. The narrator, Oliver Marks, has spent ten years in prison for this crime, and as the book opens he begins to tell his story.
Rio has crafted seven individual characters and breathed life into each and every one. Yes, some characters were weaker than others, but ultimately it is the clash of these personalities, as well as their affections for and resentments towards one another that propel this narrative forward. One of my favorite tropes is that of “found families” and that is what you will find here – a slightly dysfunctional family, perhaps, but a family nonetheless. It is this utter familiarity with one another that makes it so easy to get to know these characters and love them. True to its artistic inspiration, this book is an investigation of monumental themes like guilt and villainy, love and loyalty, and the boundary between art and life. The tangled relationships between this group of characters is the driving force of the narrative; the complexity and ambiguity between the seven of them is unabashedly human, delightfully endearing, and, of course, occasionally uncomfortable. It makes for intense, rich reading.
This book is also an examination of the havoc wreaked by toxic masculinity and a subversion of normative expectations, neither of which is immediately obvious, but both of which are as integral to the plot as Shakespeare. The critique of toxic masculinity is remains somewhat obscure, unfortunately, and I do wish that it had been more clearly interrogated, though I also understand why the author chose to leave things more ambiguous. Wonderfully, however, the subversion of normative expectations (and that’s as specific as I’ll get) is unequivocal.
Speaking of richness: the prose is incredible. More than once I found myself pausing to re-read paragraphs for the sheer joy of the language. Rio uses words to paint vivid mental images of Dellecher, deftly crafting a dramatic and atmospheric setting. It’s rare that I feel so utterly transported to a place I’m reading about, but in this book, I could feel the beauty and the claustrophobia inherent in a small, enclosed campus like Dellecher. I can still picture the cold, still lake, the stars reflecting on its surface, with a tower rising out of the trees in the background. The author’s uses of analogy and metaphor are also absolutely superb, lending elegance to a narrative that could have easily devolved into melodrama given its lofty inspiration.
There’s a lot of Shakespeare in here, both literally and intertextually. Not only are there huge chunks of Shakespearean quotes as part of extended, lovingly described performances, and not only do the characters often speak in Shakespearean quotes to one another, the entire narrative is framed as a Shakespearean tragedy. Shakespearean themes lurk in every corner, discussed by the characters and hinted at by the author. That is not to say this book is only for Bardolators, however: personally, I’m not Shakespeare’s biggest fan, and yet I was able to enjoy this book immensely. It certainly won’t hinder your reading experience, in my opinion, only enhance it. If you’re worried it makes things melodramatic and pretentious, don’t be – yes, there is an inherent pretentiousness to characters speaking in Shakespearean sonnets, but it is something the characters and the author are all too aware of. It is this intense self-awareness that makes the book – and the characters – much more likable than their counterparts in The Secret History, a book with similar events but radically different themes.
By the end I was surprisingly emotional. As a person, the ending made me want to curl up into a ball and sob, but as a reader and a writer, I thought it was very fitting, artistically and thematically. This is a thrilling, engaging read, with gorgeous prose, likable characters, and plenty of literary allusions. What more could one want? I highly, highly recommend this book, even if literary fiction isn’t normally your jam (it certainly isn’t mine). M.L. Rio is definitely an author whose career I will be keeping a close eye on.