If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio
Flatiron Books, 2017, 368 pages
Literary Fiction

I received this eBook from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. If We Were Villains will be available for purchase April 11, 2017.

Beginning in 2007, Oliver Marks is greeted on his last days of imprisonment by the detective who put him there in M. L. Rio’s debut novel, If We Were Villains. Soaked in Shakespeare, Villains tells two stories: Oliver’s release from prison and his following conversation with Detective Colborne and the conversation itself: a retelling of what, exactly, happened at the Dellecher Classical Conservatory in 1997. One of seven remaining fourth-years at the elite school in the theatre department, Oliver is, compared to his six friends, decidedly ordinary. There’s Richard, who can nearly be described as a high school jock stereotype (though, not, as he is somewhat more complex and is a twenty-two-year-old theatre student), always cast as some king or equivalent; Meredith, his on-and-off girlfriend who is consistently cast as the temptress; Alexander, the moody and intense — too intense for his own self as he self-medicates with various substances — naturally and often cast as a villain; Filippa, nearly as much a bystander as Oliver, somewhat androgynous and cast just the same; James, a source of comfort for Oliver who is regularly cast as some hero or other; and Oliver himself, James’s sidekick both on- and off-stage. With a group so tightly wound around each other to the point of near-exclusion of other students and a natural inclination toward drama and theatrics, it’s no surprise that their lives implode when one of the students dies, or is killed, or has an accident, or who-knows-what and there’s the question of whether it’s better to know or to not know.

Having followed Rio as DukeofBookingham on Tumblr for a few years, I know a little bit about how this story came to be and the author’s work on it. It’s been a strange experience, coming into this piece of literature that I feel relatively intimately connected to, compared to any other book I’ve ever read. It made me look at the book differently and, I think, more critically. Rio regularly provides writing advice to her followers, so I went in expecting the best and, really, (probably unfairly) specifically looked for flaws. There weren’t many.

Rio, a big fan of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, incorporated much of one of her favorite novels into Villains: the setting, the tormented students, the relationships that spur on problems, death, an obsession with a scholarly pursuit. What I preferred in Villains over History, however, was that the novel’s narrator wasn’t quite so periphery as in History. I love periphery narrators (perhaps one of the biggest reasons I really enjoy The Great Gatsby — while Nick is present in the lives of the people he speaks of, he doesn’t act a whole lot. In fact, his inaction probably leads to a good amount of the tragedy that occurs — but I digress). Rio, however, made an excellent choice in giving Oliver more agency as a character in this instance. She very well could have made him a simple bystander, but Oliver’s guilt in all of this is far more interesting for his action, both direct and indirect.

Oliver as a narrator is observant and detailed. Readers learn about the specific architectural history of Dellecher (which I felt at points was overkill, but did do some work to build the scene). As the seven students live in what is known as the Tower, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Gryffindor dormitories of Harry Potter fame. I don’t believe this was intentional, but it did cast a sort of magical shimmer on the events of the novel without any other sort of magical realism going on, beyond, perhaps, some delusions. But back to Oliver’s narration and Rio’s skill with description: rarely, if ever, did the language become cliché. With Shakespearean quotes strewn about the text (again, perhaps too much, though it certainly served to demonstrate the characters’ immersion), anything said outside of that context was fresh. The description of the dead character’s body, in particular, was so striking I skipped lines and came back, skipped lines, came back — unusual, for me.

Also a bit overwhelming was the sheer number of primary characters. One of the female characters (I won’t say who so as to avoid leading you to figuring out which student dies) I could have done without as her involvement throughout the novel seems relatively minimal. Despite this, nearly everyone was well-developed and their individual relationships with each other similarly so, which was especially impressive given how many there were. Colborne, as a character, leaned toward a detective stereotype, though as his role as character in the novel was small, I ignored him, mostly. Meanwhile, Shakespeare’s presence felt lacking. Although his words can be found on nearly every other page, there was something missing in his influence on the students, particularly as Oliver blames Shakespeare for “all of it.”

Rio incorporates a fair amount of twists toward the end. While each one was at least a little surprising, the overwhelm of them felt somewhat gimmicky and insincere. This, too, was how I felt about a major decision made around the death of the one character, which featured a thought process I just couldn’t buy into. The character was awful, to be sure, but that awful? I wasn’t convinced. Additionally, the remaining character’s decision seemed moot: the time it would have required to act was not equal to the time in which things wrapped up (and, apologies for the vagueness here, but I don’t want to spoil it!). It’s a grand idea, just perhaps not executed well and, certainly, not easy to execute.

Rio’s first novel is clearly well-plotted, well-constructed, and well-written, if a little insincere at parts. I always felt a bit aware that I was reading fiction, as if Rio held back somewhat — perhaps due to her background in theatre in some way or other, but I won’t speculate too much on why, because I don’t know that it matters. Villains is a good next-pick for fans of The Secret History or Paper Covers Rock. Ultimately, I hard a hard time putting it down. With great attention to detail, Rio has a good amount of success with Villains and I’m looking forward to whatever comes from her next.

I read this book as part of Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge, fulfilling challenge #2, “Read a debut novel,” and I leave it behind with four-and-a-half hearts.

❤❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤