Review: If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio
Expectation is the root of all heartache – William Shakespeare
Whoever recommended this book to me… I just want to talk.
About the Book
Publisher: Flatiron Press | Release Date: April 11, 2017 | Pages: 368
Genre: NA, Mystery | Format: Hardcover | Source: Purchased
As one of seven young actors studying Shakespeare at an elite arts college, Oliver and his friends play the same roles onstage and off: hero, villain, tyrant, temptress, ingenue, extra. But when the casting changes, and the secondary characters usurp the stars, the plays spill dangerously over into life, and one of them is found dead. The rest face their greatest acting challenge yet: convincing the police, and themselves, that they are blameless.
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As a former Thespian and lifelong lover of Shakespeare, If We Were Villains is a book I should have loved. So many friends spoke so highly of it that I went in with tough-to-meet expectations, and unfortunately, they were not met. I think this is a book people will either love or hate; I should have DNF’d it early on to save myself the frustration but I was curious about the mystery (but on that front was left largely wanting.)
The book largely focuses on the daily lives of the seven fourth-year acting students at their elite performing arts university. All of the characters are pretty much fit a caricature, and I didn’t really connect with anyone other than our main character Oliver. Rio does a good job of nailing the camaraderie developed within a theatre company and the clashes of personality. These students breathe Shakespeare, quoting random lines from his Works in everyday conversation with one another, which I found endearing. But despite my love of the Bard, I really did not enjoy reading about their four performances as they are acted out. If I wanted to read scenes from Macbeth, I would pull out my Complete Works.
I was looking for a murder mystery full of unreliable characters and betrayal. While those expectations were bare minimum met, I found the mystery to almost be the subplot to Oliver’s journey of self-discovery, which would have been beautiful but I found it tainted by a lot of horrible people.
“You can justify anything if you do it poetically enough.”
I found myself pretty uncomfortable reading the book because of the bullying and slut-shaming, as well as rather ubiquitous homophobia. The group is incredibly accepting of Alexander’s sexuality (gay); however, everyone is really nasty toward Oliver for a friendship that they think might be more. Everyone is selfish and cruel, which may be an accurate depiction of reality but isn’t really something I want to read. I honestly don’t even want to mention the pansexual subplot in the book because the harmful bullying and homophobia endured are unchallenged. I wish I felt comfortable saying more, but alas.
“You can’t quantify humanity. You can’t measure a – not the way you mean to. People are passionate and flawed and fallible. They make mistakes.”
In regards to the mystery itself, I felt that it was fairly straightforward and I was a little disappointed. In the opening chapter of the book (which, by the way, HOOKED ME so good), Oliver says that he will do his best to tell what really happened but even he isn’t sure. But what followed was a fairly straightforward account of events? Like I understand that each person has a piece of what happened and you aren’t really sure who was telling the truth, but for some reason, the flashback sections of the book didn’t capture that feeling for me.
The pacing was incredibly uneven for me as well. I found myself most invested in the present-day part of the narrative, where Oliver is revisiting the past and explaining what ~really happened~ all those years ago. But the actual recounting of events? Mired down by minutiae and full-on PAGES describing scenes from a play being acted out. Pages. I am not joking. Literally chunks from Shakespeare’s plays are part of Rio’s text. Rio uses this to show the deteriorating relationships between characters as it bleeds into their work, but honestly, this could have been done in a different way. By the third time, it had lost its effect and I was incredibly bored.
It’s obvious that this book is M.L. Rio’s love letter to theatre and the Bard. I think this is a book you will either love or hate, and I am sad to say that this book wasn’t for me. The prose is beautiful and poetic, but the overall narrative structure just didn’t work for me. If you love Shakespeare, this book may be something you enjoy, but I wouldn’t really recommend this to those who aren’t pretty familiar with his work.
Content warnings: bullying, drinking, eating disorder (and shitty comments about it), recreational drug use, homophobia, murder, slut-shaming, substance abuse, suicide