If it isn’t glaringly obvious by now, I should tell you guys that I used to read a lot of books when I was a kid. It was mostly fairy tales, Enid Blyton, Beatrix Potter, L.M. Montgomery and the Great Illustrated Classics series. That is until I reached the 3rd grade and was introduced to the literary genius of William Shakespeare. Over the years, as I moved from lapping up the Charles Lamb kiddie version to the unabridged works of the Bard of Avon himself, I realized why this man is considered one of the greatest ever.
Debut author and a self-described “word nerd”, M.L. Rio, holder of a Master’s degree in Shakespeare Studies, uses her background to write a stunning mystery revolving around a cast of self-absorbed young actors that the Bard himself would be proud of.
The book opens with the protagonist, Oliver Marks, about to be released from prison after serving ten years for murder. The man who put him there is still not convinced that he did it. Oliver agrees to tell him the truth on one condition: that there be no repercussions for the real culprit.
Cut to ten years ago, when Oliver is a theater major in his final year at the elite Dellecher Classical Conservatory. His circle consists of his fellow thespians and housemates, all so deeply entrenched in the Shakespeare-only syllabus of their school that they often have entire conversations in quotes and poetry. Over the course of their last year, as the group performs works as varied as Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet among others, we come to know their insecurities and their motivations. The story comes to a head when an unexpected death exposes the fault lines in an ostensibly tight-knit group and the line between reality and play-acting is truly blurred.
The story is told from the perspective of Oliver Marks, but we get to know his six peers very intimately. Each one is distinctive and memorable, and I honestly can’t decide who my favorite is. I really enjoyed the friendship between the students, individually and as a whole. Each relationship in this book – whether romantic or platonic – is complex and realistic and interesting.
I found the book to be exceedingly clever. Ms Rio does a tremendous job of piecing together the events of ten years ago with the reality of the present. Despite the heavy influences of Shakespeare, the book has a distinct narrative voice. Oliver, James, Wren, Filippa, Richard, Meredith, and Alexander are fully fleshed out and vivid characters, both on and offstage. These characters speak Shakespeare like a language in its own right, with double meanings layered into every sentence.
If We Were Villains is a love letter to Shakespeare and the theater. Ms Rio’s characters often blur with the characters they play and are affected by the plots they recreate. Shakespeare isn’t just mentioned in this book a lot, his writing is almost a character in an of itself, and it is brilliant! I will say, that Ms Rio definitely has an exhaustive knowledge of Shakespeare (obviously), and someone who isn’t very familiar with his writing may not quite understand some of the subtleties of this book.
That being said, I would recommend this book to all fans of the Bard and anyone who loved The Secret History by Donna Tartt.