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If We Were Villains: A Novel Paperback – April 17, 2018
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"Nerdily (and winningly) in love with Shakespeare...Readable, smart.”
―New York Times Book Review
"Pulls the reader in from the first page...A well-written and gripping ode to the stage...A fascinating, unorthodox take on rivalry, friendship, and truth, IF WE WERE VILLAINS will draw readers in and leave them pondering the weight of our biggest actions and their consequences."
"Echoing such college-set novels as Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and mixing in enough Shakespearean theater to qualify readers for the stage, Rio’s debut mystery is an engrossing ride…Rio crafts an intricate story about friendship, love, and betrayal. Recommended for readers who enjoy literary fiction by authors such as Tartt or Emily St. John Mandel.”
―Library Journal, starred review
“Bloody, melodramatic, suspenseful debut… This novel about obsession at the conservatory will thoroughly obsess you.”
―Kirkus, starred review
"This is a rare and extraordinary novel: a vivid rendering of the closed world of a conservatory education, a tender and harrowing exploration of friendship, and a genuinely breathtaking literary thriller. I can’t recommend this book highly enough, and can’t wait to read what M. L. Rio writes next."
―Emily St. John Mandel, New York Times bestselling author of Station Eleven
“Much like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, M. L. Rio’s sparkling debut is a richly layered story of love, friendship, and obsession. Both comic and tragic, this novel asks what people are willing to sacrifice in the name of ambition. Expertly plotted, beautifully written, If We Were Villains will keep you riveted through its final, electrifying moments.”
―Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, New York Times bestselling author of The Nest
“If We Were Villains is a whip-smart, chilling tale of a group of Shakespeare students who are, as the Bard put it, "a little more than kin, and less than kind" ― especially after one of their own meets a horrific fate. Full of friendship, betrayal, and passionate devotion, this is a page-turning literary thriller whose final, shocking twist you won't soon forget.”
―Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, New York Times bestselling author of Bittersweet and June
“A tale worthy of the Bard himself…ending in one final, astonishing twist. Recommended for readers with refined literary tastes, and those looking for ‘something like’ Donna Tartt.”
“Intriguing…a solid mystery that keeps the pages turning.”
About the Author
- Publisher : Flatiron Books; Reprint edition (April 17, 2018)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 368 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1250095298
- ISBN-13 : 978-1250095299
- Item Weight : 10.4 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.49 x 0.99 x 8.15 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #3,072 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
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Top reviews from the United States
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I do not ordinarily choose books about college-age protagonists. The setting of this book, however, is no ordinary college, and the experience of these protagonists (while it certainly includes stereotypical collegiate overindulgences) has nothing to do with the stereotypical American college experience, i.e. it has nothing to do with sports, inter-school rivalries, or other externalities. The experience here is about the delirious satisfaction of constantly creating, constantly discovering, constantly learning. Of course, not everything we learn is pleasant. Sometimes, what we learn is acutely painful. That's life.
The mystery in this book is not a conventional murder mystery. The structure of the book allows for a slow unveiling of the characters and their milieu, which makes the eventual "reveal" inevitable. It is not contrived. It is, in fact, completely true to what we learn about the characters. We do not have a "villain" in the conventional sense, who deliberately committed a crime in order to gain something. What we do have is a group of people bound by mutual love of their subject and, in most cases, by degrees of love for each other.
"If We Were Villains" has been compared to "The Secret History," which is a book I have not read. I didn't read it because of points revealed in reviews that made me think I wouldn't like it. If it deals as well with truth and consequences as this book, however, maybe I should have given it a try.
This debut novel by M.L. Rio is not bad overall, but it isn't what I would consider great or compelling. By now it has been compared to that stunning novel "The Secret History" by Donna Tartt too many times, and while the comparison is fair on the points of pretentious students dedicated to a literary subject to the point of obsession who also commit murderous crimes, this book falls flat in many ways where "The Secret History" shines.
"If We Were Villains" often felt murky at times. The murder still seems a bit excessive, and that plot point was not well developed. I understand that the person murdered became a violent hassle to deal with, but the reasoning behind why he became a violent hassle did not seem believable, making the whole novel feel lacking of a significant motive. Nor did it seem like the group was ever one "big family" with him included. It was a lot more telling than showing when it came to the characters' involvement with each other. This, to me, is where I simply could not get into the grove of the book. It is readable, for the most part (I will get to my love and contentions with the use of Shakespeare later), but even with its readability, the feelings of annoyance would settle in, and I began reading just to finish it. As someone who believes the best part of of any literary work is the journey, not the end, I was not happy that this book started to feel like a chore. The chore aspect of the novel was not that it is a challenging read, because I wouldn't classify it as such, but that the characters and the story began to be a bore given that the end is a bit predictable and the characters are extremely unlikable.
The use of Shakespeare, that began to feel dominating, throughout the book could be exhausting for some. I actually enjoyed it, mostly, seeing that Shakespeare wrote about seemingly every aspect of humanity and his words are always poignant. The quotes were always fitting, but my enjoyment was more admiration for The Bard than the actual plot device. I must say that Rio is clearly versed in Shakespeare, and that is an exceptional thing in and of itself, but the constant use of Shakespeare did begin to feel gimmicky after a while. It is a very esoteric group of literati who go around quoting Shakespeare in everyday conversation, and while the idea of humans that pretentious does delight me, having to read interjections of Shakespeare in what felt like every other paragraph got to be a little grating. "Brevity is the soul of wit."
Overall, the book does a fine job of story-telling, though it is not always enjoyable or interesting. I give it three stars because it isn't so awful that I have to throw it across the room, and Rio can write (much better than this reviewer), and I give a point for it being Shakespearean. I would recommend it to people who just have to read something similar to "The Secret History", but I do think there will be a level of disappointment with the recommendation. Naturally, I am going to suggest just picking up "The Secret History" over "If We Were Villains" if someone is looking for an academic mystery (rather mystery set in an academic setting) filled with pretentious but erudite students. I think all of us who have read both books can, without any hesitancy, say that Tartt does a much better job of developing the characters, plot, and atmosphere. But I honestly don't think it is far to compare Rio's writing with Tartt's, even if the basis of both debut novels are similar.
"If We Were Villains" is a book that had enough hype surrounding it to read it, but it is not worth a re-read.
I tried. I loved THE SECRET HISTORY and I actually enjoy watching stage productions. I used to go all the time in college because one of my friends was an ex-theater major. But for some reason, THE SECRET HISTORY and Shakespeare just didn't work. I think it was... okay, it was like a pretentious book for boring people. When I was in college, there was this guy who was a philosophy major and he was really hot and we got along well, but he was SO full of himself and everything he said was like listening to someone say stupid things in a smart way and that's what this book was like. It made me want to slap my head with a folio.
I'm happy for those of you who liked it but I thought this was boring.
1.5 out of 5 stars
Top reviews from other countries
Oliver, the protagonist, begins the book being released from prison after serving a ten year sentence. He is met by Detective Colborne who put him behind bars and wants to know the truth about the events leading to his incarceration. Through flashbacks divided into Acts we learn about the group’s final year at Dellecher Classical Conservatory and the building claustrophobia that consumed them.
Oliver and his friends; Richard, Meredith, Filippa, Alexander, Wren and James are a tight knit group who live, study and act together. They live and breathe Shakespeare; they study him, they act in his plays and their speech is littered with his quotes. They have their own secret language which makes them impenetrable and almost cult like. They are in their final year and each has adopted a role both within their friendship group and on stage; the hero, the villain, the tyrant, the temptress, the ingénue and the extra. Tensions are ramped up when they are assigned roles in Julius Caeser and the pressures of the play spill over into their day-to-day lives dividing them and causing life-changing rifts. M.L. Rio ramps the tension up so well, we know something will happen but we don’t quite know what and there is an overarching sense of impending doom which oozes from the pages.
I thought the characters were wonderfully created, each had their own distinctive voice and I loved how their relationships with one another played out. Oliver’s friendship with James for instance was beautifully and subtly written and was one of my favourite parts of the novel. I also really liked that the book was divided into Acts as it helped to drive the action and was a lovely nod to the Shakespearean aspects of the novel.
I was astounded to discover that If We Were Villains was a debut book, it is so incredibly well written with beautiful and literary passages that I cannot stop thinking about. The Romeo and Juliet play for example was exquisite, moving and emotional and I was gripped. The use of the play’s words to communicate everything that cannot be said in real life was astounding and some of the passages were incredibly delicate, elegant and erotic.
I have to say that this book really appealed to my English Literature background and geeky Shakespeare love. I am by no means an expert at all, and whilst I think this book could be read and enjoyed knowing nothing of his plays, I think you’d get far more from it if you have at least some knowledge. If We Were Villains really isn’t pretentious or elitist, it is very much a coming of age novel with real depth and layers. Anybody who has been in a tight-knit friendship group or who has lived with a group of people can understand the feelings and emotions experienced by the main players of this novel.
This book is going on my Favourite Book list and I think I am going to give it a second read so I can absorb some more of the beautiful imagery and world that M.L. Rio has created in this extraordinary book.
The book is well written (if not to the standard of Tartt), but the characters felt somewhat flat- while a character doesn't need to be likable to be rounded, the cast here are neither, but do seem to change personality on a regular basis with prima donna mood shifts which go beyond even the drama students I know.
The author is obviously a Shakespeare expert- as can be seen in her writing, even if it wasn't clear from her bio, but the motif became a bit too intrusive for me: characters constantly answering each other with Shakespeare lines, and at times whole pages of quotations- I would estimate if you removed the extended passages made up of Shakespeare dialogue, you would reduce the book by 15%.
The framing device felt forced and unnatural as a means of telling the story, and the 'one final, astonishing twist' (Booklist) is anything but: it was clear where the novel was heading throughout.
It will be interesting to see what the author does as a follow up, and whether the endeavor will move away from such a Shakespearean focus
Putting that aside and taking the book on its own merits, it's generally a compelling read. The plot is ultimately fairly thin, but it's the sense of place, the characters, and the atmosphere that keep you turning the pages. I particularly liked the elite college with its weird rituals and traditions - it felt as fleshed out and magical as Hogwarts and despite some of the unpleasantness, left me with quite the desire to attend.
The characters were basically deliberate archetypes - hero, villain, seductress etc - which was quite a fun idea but rather laboured. The first few chapters spent far too much time spelling out every key character's background and personality rather than letting it come out naturally. The main character and narrator is generally cast as a supporting character, and feels like that's also the role he plays in college life. It was an interesting route to go down and I'm in two minds about whether it helped to make him relatable or whether one of the more flamboyant characters might have made a more compelling lead.
I loved the way Shakespeare was woven into the plot, from the way characters behave and the plot plays out, to the way the characters always quote - or sometimes misquote - the bard, and above all, to the way the intensity of performing certain scenes was portrayed. Reading about the characters' experiences of performing and living these scenes bought the plays to life for me more than any theatrical performance I can remember.
There's a bit of a dual narrative, with the book starting ten years after most of the action, with the main character newly released from prison for some sort of crime he did or didn't commit while at the college. Most of the proper story is what he's recounting to a now-retired policeman who originally investigated the case. I usually love flashbacks and other non-linear narratives, but I think this would have been best told in straight chronological order. From the present day scenes, it wasn't hard to work out what had happened in the past way before it was shown in the narrative, which killed some of the tension, and it didn't really add any particular twists or revelations.
Overall, while this was far from perfect, I'd definitely recommend it.
We are frequently told publishing is getting more and more safe and bland. I don't know whether or not that's actually true - It's big! There's lots of it! - but a book like this is certainly evidence of the opposite.
Taking an idea, and written in a style, that would surely be struck down if one were merely concerned about populist success, this is a thriller that glories - in both form and content - in Shakespeare and of the theatre.
Oliver is a young student at a prestigious US arts conservatory. Dellecher reads a little like a Hogwarts for thespians - complete with a Gothic style castle, a local bar (the 'Bore's Head' - a Shakespeare joke) and extensive grounds, including a lake.
The theatrical training is rigorous, and the acting students are the crème de la crème with the 4th years at the very top of the social scale: every year, students are weeded and the survivors expected to shine. A quirk of Delecher is that only Shakespeare is taught and played: there's something of a culty atmosphere with lines of his dialogue snapped back and forth (either in their original form or tweaked on the fly) between the students. At times I felt a bit inadequate for not knowing where they all (or, I'll admit it, most of them) came from. I'm sure it would add to one's appreciation of the story to know, but it was still perfectly accessible - and, as I said, this feature of the language helps establish just how inward looking the college is.
That's supported by the scant information we get about the students' backgrounds. We only learn a little about Oliver and in a couple of memorable scenes, see his family - his troubled elder sister who is clearly anorexic and his younger sister, desperate for his help and support. Oliver pretty much cold-shoulders them: he's a fascinating central character but does seem rather emotionally distant which becomes a key theme as the college year passes and a heady emotional brew begins to simmer.
Since this book is riffing off Shakespeare, a key ingredient of that brew is, of course, jealousy. Professional (well, studental) jealousy over parts, roles and prominence; personal jealousy over lovers and status. In a narrow, already cliquey setting the temperature rises quickly (fuelled perhaps by the students' prodigious appetite for substances, of various sorts - no, despite what I said, we're really not in Hogwarts now). With passion to be portrayed on stage, there are many opportunities for personal disputes to bleed over into what is acted out, creating an atmosphere of danger and possibility that is fairly crackling and sparking by the middle of the book.
I should add that the story is narrated by Oliver ten years later as he is released from prison. That isn't a spoiler as it's established in the first few lines of the book. Why he was there is what unfolds in the book - and there are many other twists involved that I won't describe because this is above all a high stakes, tense thriller.
What I will say is that it's here Rio really brings Shakespeare to her storytelling. The quoting of lines, the extracts from the plays that the students are performing, adds atmosphere but isn't the heart of the matter. What is key is the structuring, the giving of life to the themes of the plays and above all, the way that the students live dual - or do I mean triple? - lives, playing their own roles, their parts in the plays and, perhaps, somewhere underneath, being real people. And doing all this consciously. It all makes for a powerful, at times almost creepy, experience (in one scene there's a dramatic confrontation in a panelled, candlelit library) not least because we know from the plays some of the bad things that can happen in this invented world.
Done badly, this could quickly become very pretentious but Rio avoids that, in part by having her narrator Oliver apparently be one of the more ordinary and grounded of the students, his emotional apartness meaning he's only half in the same world as the others, a suitable interpreter for Detective Colborne who's hearing it - and also for us.
In a wider, and deeper, respect she's aided of course by the storytelling genius of Shakespeare himself and by his sheer ubiquity in our culture. Yes, it might be an advantage to have read or seen the plays but even if you haven't, you'll know enough of the themes, the characters, the situations that underlie this story.
I said above that this book is far from being safe or bland publishing. I wouldn't want to be taken as my meaning it's difficult or inaccessible - I don't. It is a very different book, one that takes a little getting into, but once you do that, it is just so rewarding.
A strong recommendation from me, then, and kudos to both ML Rio and to Titan for doing something new and fresh.