Review: If We Were Villains
Equal parts murder mystery, love story, and homage to Shakespeare. If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio is a novel that masters plot development and the art of prose but fails to create female character complexity and a satisfying ending. Set at an elite arts college, it centers around Oliver Marks and his friends, seven young actors who share a cult-like bond and find the line between their roles and real-life blurring when one of them is found dead and the rest are left to pass their hardest acting class yet: convincing the police, each other, and themselves of their innocence. The author offers this description of these creatures of theater:
“Actors are by nature volatile—alchemic creatures composed of incendiary elements, emotion and ego and envy. Heat them up, stir them together, and sometimes you get gold. Sometimes disaster.”
The novel opens with Oliver, the narrator, leaving prison after serving a ten-year sentence for murder. He meets retiring detective Joseph Colborne, the man who locked him up, and agrees to tell him the truth about what happened ten years ago. What follows is the tale of a group of young actors who drive each other to ruin. It’s a story of Shakespearan tragedy, of passion, jealousy, fear, revenge, and madness. The author offers this observation:
“You can justify anything if you do it poetically enough.”
Reading the novel feels like a leisurely stroll with Shakespeare himself. The actors quote him constantly, both in regular conversation and in rehearsals, to the point where they become indistinguishable from the characters they play on stage. These quotations, mostly from Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar, are used to reflect deeper themes, a hit or miss technique that in this instance works well. The plot expertly mirrors the structure of a Shakespearean tragedy and incorporates the classic elements of the genre, including hamartia, a lack of poetic justice, and catharsis. While you don’t need to be a Shakespeare expert to understand If We Were Villains, having at least a little background knowledge will enhance your reading experience, as the following quotation confirms:
“‘What is more important, that Caesar is assassinated or that he is assassinated by his intimate friends?...That,’ Frederick said, ‘is where the tragedy is.’”
Even though it follows a well-known structure, the plot is never predictable. Each plot twist sneaks up on you and attacks when you least expect it. The reading experience is like riding a rollercoaster for the fiftieth time and still being caught off guard by every drop or loop. The plot develops slowly but beautifully and provides a lesson in masterful foreshadowing and storytelling. Unfortunately, all of this falls apart at the end. It’s hard to describe what a disappointment the ending is without giving away spoilers, so let’s go back to the rollercoaster metaphor: It’s like all the twists, turns, and drops of a rollercoaster are supposed to lead up to this big drop at the end, but once you reach the long-awaited end, that drop is nowhere to be found. In its place is a tiny turn and when you get off the ride, you feel unsatisfied, as the following line suggests:
“How tremendous the agony of unmade decisions.”
Like the plot, the novel’s character development is a mixed bag of amazing characterizations and disappointments. Each of the seven main characters plays a common archetype (the hero, the villain, the tyrant, the temptress, the ingenue, the extra, and the sidekick) both on the stage and off. While these roles manage to endow male characters with complexity, they reduce most of the female characters to one-dimensional, cardboard cutouts of actual people.
It’s clear that Rio spent more time developing a singular male character than she did all her female characters combined. Disappointing, but not surprising, considering the state of female characters in the general literary world. But Rio’s true talent lies in her prose as this line corroborates:
“Which of us could say we were more sinned against than sinning? We were so easily manipulated—confusion made a masterpiece of us.”
Indeed, each line of If We Were Villains is breathtaking and heartbreaking, cleaving through you like the sharpest of knives and pin pricking every surface you leave bare. There is truly nothing more devastating than reading just a page of this book. The experience takes you apart, builds you back up, and then completely breaks you. Some sentences from the novel have been woven with intricate language, others have earth-shattering meanings, some have both, and others have none, but all of them haunt you long after you read them, as is the case with this overarching pieces of advice:
“The future is wide and wild and full of promises. Seize on every opportunity that comes your way and cling to it, lest it be washed back out to sea.”
Overall, If We Were Villains is a book of high highs and low lows that ultimately cancel each other out to form a middling “decent”. If you’re planning on reading it, make sure to look up trigger warnings (booktriggerwarnings.com is great for this) and order a copy from bookshop.org to support independent bookstores.