Title: If We Were Villains
Author: M. L. Rio
Genre: Contemporary, Mystery
Page Count: 368
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Notable Notables: LGBTQ+ Characters
Recommended Readers: Fans of Shakespeare and
One thing I’m sure Colborne will never understand is that 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 this before.
This was an unexpectedly amazing find! All my love and thanks to my friend Colby for making me aware of such a fantastic book.
M. L. Rio delivers a debut novel that is both thoughtful and mesmerizing, blending the works of Shakespeare with the lives of seven student actors at Dellecher Classical Conservatory. If We Were Villains delves into the beauty and manic competition of Shakespearean theatre and the sharp edges that come with becoming too much like the roles you play. At what point does art separate itself from life and vice versa?
That’s what retired Detective Colborne is trying to figure out the day Oliver Marks is finally released from prison. He wants to understand, and for that, he needs Oliver to tell him a story.
Told in five acts and from Oliver’s point of view, readers are taken ten years into the past to Oliver’s fourth and final year at Dellecher where he and six other actors are the best of the best but wind up playing the same roles on and off stage: hero, villain, ingénue, temptress, tyrant, and extra. When their instructors decide to switch things up, the delicate balance between them all shifts, culminating in a terrible, violent end that begins the survivors’ best performance yet: convincing the police, each other, and themselves that they are innocent in what occurred.
If We Were Villains isn’t a conventional choice for me, but I adored it from the start. Oliver, James, Richard, Meredith, Wren, Alexander, and Filippa are all engaging, complicated characters in their own rights, each of them ricocheting off the other, friends one moment, foes the next. Oliver especially was the root of kindness the novel needed, serving as a sort of bard to deliver the story and try to make sense of why things happened the way they did, why everything turned to madness so quickly. Richard was haunting and oppressive, Meredith was sensual but vulnerable, James was sure but fearful, Alexander was lost and ever-shifting, Wren was quiet and shy, and Filippa was so steady that you never knew what she was thinking.
M. L. Rio used these characters to pay homage to Shakespeare in a way that was both powerful and deliberately pretentious, and I don’t think Shakespeare would’ve wanted it any other way. Actors have that reputation for pretentiousness, don’t they? Shakespeare kids are the peak of that, the characters here even speaking to each other in their own Shakespearean language derived from lines of his plays in between regular conversation. In fact, I love how sometimes the dialogue forgoes dialogue tags and reads more like a script between actors. Moreover, Rio also captures the magnetism that actors have, showing how their lives can be externally glamorous and full of mystique but internally unsure and unstable.
The action of the novel builds around the four plays the actors put on, starting with Macbeth and continuing with Julius Caesar, King Lear, and Romeo and Juliet. (Huge bonus points, too, because this book is the one thing that uses Romeo and Juliet in a way I didn’t hate and embraces the true spirit of the play, which is often lost: appropriately gut-punching.) The tension builds and builds and continues even after tragedy strikes. I was constantly enthralled with how the characters would react and what they were thinking, and I loved how the plays they were performing often bled into and shaped real-life events and how each character behaved off stage.
Also, the entangled, beautiful, complex, and tragic relationship between Oliver and James had me feeling so many things. I haven’t been able to shake them from my system and my thoughts yet, and I’m not sure I ever want to. Oliver’s relationship between everyone else was great and varied, but he and James had me from the get-go. I won’t spoil anything concerning them because reading it for the first time felt so special.
In contrast, Meredith’s relationship with Oliver wasn’t at all surprising, but I still enjoyed the tangled aspect that being friends-turned-lovers brought them, especially when it occurred out of a need for vengeance against Richard. In another time, in another place, Oliver and Meredith could’ve worked out, but the fact that their romantic relationship came out of such an intense need for comfort and normality rather than them just liking each other ensured it would always feel fleeting and fragile.
Where James and Oliver’s relationship was a slow-building realization and Meredith and Oliver were a sudden spark, Filippa and Oliver’s friendship was a steady foundation that you didn’t realize was there until it happened. Their friendship was so understated but secretly important to them both, to the point where it was a surprise to me how Filippa stuck by Oliver after everything. She’s so guarded that you wouldn’t expect her to care as deeply as she does and to form that kind of relationship with others, but Oliver has the benefit of being such a generally kind and thoughtful person. You can’t help but like him, and I’m sure that’s what happened with Filippa.
I really cannot recommend this enough. If you enjoy theatre, Shakespeare especially, pick this up. If you like characters in all their messy, morally-complicated ways, pick this up. If you like a good mystery and prose that tells it beautifully, pick this up.
I doubt you’ll regret it.
You can justify anything if you do it poetically enough.