Review of "If We Were Villains" by M. L. Rio
Despite the now-and-again criticism that this book too closely resembled "The Secret History" by Donna Tartt, similarities beyond the traditional genre aspects and aesthetics alone were few and far between, and the novel really spoke for itself while still employing all of the beloved aspects of dark academia literature.
"You can justify anything if you do it poetically enough"
I loved this book, viciously. I poured over it in every odd moment. I tore through every narrow turn and winding curve, and I can't say with absolute certainty that I wouldn't read it a second time just a few days after putting it down.
It was haunting, interwoven with Shakespearean tragedy in a way that made me re-evaluate Shakespeare for the first time since high school and really decide to give him another chance. Truthfully, I haven't really stopped thinking about this book since I finished it.
So, without further ado:
"This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune (...) we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars...as if we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion (...), and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting-on."
The initial description of the book is most likely the reason it gained ground in some circles as "a knock off of 'The Secret History'". "If We Were Villains" features a cast of seven characters, prestigious theatre students with an overbearing and tight knit social and academic circle. However, aside from a badly-tempered character here also named Richard, this is where the similarities really end, unless one is stretching to find them.
I'll refrain from further mentioning TSH any more, because I find comparisons incredibly tiresome for both the author and the reader.
The seven-character cast begins to take on Shakespearean archetypes as the story first forms, and it is made clear to the reader too, that their archetypes translate into the roles they traditionally play at their Shakespearean-focused theatre school.
Much of the plot relies on a manipulation of thought and atmosphere, and as the reader, you are just as much psychologically indebted and tied to the novel as the characters in the novel are tied to their own Shakespearean archetypes. This lack of escape is one of the primary plot points, though it seems to underlie much of the psychical drama until the ultimate conclusion
The book opens first on a "prologue", of Oliver, undoubtedly the main character as he narrates the entirety of the novel, as he's just gotten out of jail. Most of the novel is told as a flashback, though its something you tend to forget until you reach the "current" tidbits interspersed throughout.
As the reader, you discover the story through Oliver's telling of it, which does make one wonder as to the potential skewing of his perspective, as well as making sure the story carries suspense, thrill, and a dangerous beckoning to continue to delve into the mystery of why Oliver is in jail, and what exactly happens during the course of the students' fourth and final year at their somewhat odd and intensive academy.
"It's easier now to be Romeo, or Macbeth, or Brutus, or Edmund. Something else"
This book is not for everyone, but if it is for you, you will carry the weight of its secrets around as the characters themselves do. It is messy and full of sharp edges, and ultimately, most of these edges aren't resolved.
For fans of the genre already, the atmosphere is absolutely all-encompassing, the characters are familiar, the intricacies of the plot are at once gripping and horrible, akin to a tragedy you cannot bear to look away from.
Final Thoughts (containing slight spoilers):
“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.”
As I said, I'm still reeling from the ending. Ultimately, I predicated part of the ending, but the real surprise comes in the very last couple pages. It's a hanging ending, which I don't tend to care for, and this one had me particularly taken because it is so beautifully and carefully crafted, and yet still leaves the reader wondering incessantly.
As much as I hate endings in general, and as much as I truly want to know how the story ends, the hanging ending was more tactfully done than most I see, and left me with a sigh of relief when it was all over because I had expected a certain outcome and was gifted with something not altogether out of the ballpark, but not so predictable, either.
I would advise being hesitant about reading this only if you are sensitive to flippant discussion of sensitive topics (suicide, self harm, drug use, eating disorders, etc), as it does keep with what one would expect from a group of overworked and mentally unstable young adults.
I also cannot decide how I feel about the LGBTQ content in the book, as it is obvious but low-key, and I cannot ascertain whether I like this because it is on the same level as other romances in the book and thus doesn't single out the LGBTQ characters, or I dislike it because it is mostly unmentioned, not dealt with, and more or less follows the "kill your gays" trope, though again, this does fit with the overall tone and atmosphere of the story.
Thanks for reading!