If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio
Published April 11, 2017
As a former English major who developed an appreciation for the Bard not through high school courses but because of an excellent Shakespeare undergraduate course taught by an enthusiastic professor, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy of If We Were Villains. Although it’s not without its flaws, I wholeheartedly loved the book and it has definitely made me want to dive back into a collected edition of Shakespeare (or as I liked to refer to the Norton Shakespeare in university due to its immense size, the murder book) and read my heart out. M. L. Rio’s stunning debut is a love letter to Shakespeare that can be enjoyed by both devotees of the bard and newcomers to his works.
Told from Oliver Marks’ POV ten years later, If We Were Villains is the story of seven fourth year drama students at the exclusive Dellecher Classical Conservatory, where actors perform only works by Shakespeare. Each student in the close knit group plays the same roles offstage and onstage. Bold, larger than life Richard plays leaders, kings, and tyrants, handsome studious James takes on heroes and lovers, delicate Wren is the ingenue, while beautiful and seductive Meredith plays confident temptresses, and Alexander the villains. Oliver and Filippa fill in the gaps, playing the leftover roles. But when the instructors decide to mix up the casting, the balance of power begins to shift and cracks appear in the group dynamic until, a few months later, one of them is dead. Oliver Marks is convicted of the crime and serves ten years in prison, but after he’s released he is persuaded to tell his story to the police detective who arrested him, so long as his conditions are met.
Oliver is one of the most oblivious fictional characters I have ever encountered, which makes him a fascinating choice of narrator. I always find unreliable narrators intriguing and Oliver is no exception. In this case, although Oliver claims to be telling the whole story to Colborne, the police officer who arrested him ten years earlier, and even sets out conditions before he begins to relate the tale, I had to wonder how accurate his version of events is. After all, Oliver is a former drama student who trained to lie for a living, and proves over the course of the narrative just how far he’s willing to go to protect those he cares about. But even if Oliver believes he’s telling the truth, he’s such a naive character that he routinely seems to miss what’s going on around him, even amongst his closest friends, so I wondered if he was unwittingly not providing the whole story.
Rio’s prose, peppered liberally with Shakespeare quotes, can be pretentious and takes some getting used to at first but, as the author herself says in the afterward, she was assured that it’s absolutely how some drama students talk and I completely buy it, particularly in the secluded environment of Dellecher.
I found all of the characters really interesting, but I do have some gripes. I wish we had spent more time exploring Wren, who is so thinly written at times that I assumed she was a red herring and there would be more from her later in the book. Similarly, although there’s more of Meredith in the story and she does have layers, it would have been nice to see more of her vulnerability. In general, the female characters are really interesting… I just wanted more of them!
I also got the impression that some of what the author wants to convey doesn’t quite come across in the text. Reading Rio’s explanations on her tumblr account for things such as the abrupt change in one character’s behaviour and turn towards violence, as well as the seemingly dismissive treatment of Oliver’s sister’s eating disorder, everything made sense, but I missed some of this meaning in the book itself. Since both of these cases could also be seen as plot devices to move the action forward in particular ways, it’s a shame that more motivation for these events wasn’t offered within the book itself.
Despite these flaws, I LOVED this book. The Shakespeare productions described sound so complex and interesting that I wish I was able to watch them come to life (especially the masque), and unlike The Secret History, which If We Were Villains is frequently compared to, most of the characters were very likable. My favourites were definitely Filippa, who is unruffled and enigmatic even in the face of tragedy, but also protective of her fellow actors, who she sees as her family, and James, the kind of person you’d probably want to hate because he’s wealthy, handsome, and talented, but you can’t because he’s also such a good friend and works so hard for his success.
I really didn’t expect to be as moved by this book as I was. I guessed some of the plot twists before our oblivious narrator, but the novel is still so well-crafted, the prose so perfectly fitting, that it brought me to tears anyway. The ending may not appeal to everyone, but without spoilers I have to say that I absolutely adored it and thought it was a very fitting end for a book about Shakespeare. If We Were Villains is an original, highly intelligent, and well-written read that should appeal to just about anyone, whether you’re a casual Shakespeare fan, an enthusiast, or only have a passing familiarity with his work. Certainly the enthusiast will get more out of this book, but as a casual fan, I greatly enjoyed it, even if some of the references likely went over my head. Highly recommended for all readers.