So this novel was chosen on a whim, as it was sitting ready and waiting in the Audiobooks Available Now section of the library’s app. And upon reading the synopsis it felt like it had a similar energy to The Secret History by Donna Tartt, a book I definitely liked!
If We Were Villains begins by introducing us to Oliver Marks, a man who is just being released from prison for an unspecified crime for which he served a 10-year sentence. The original detective from the case, however, still holds suspicions towards the official story of what happened, and wants Oliver to finally tell him the truth now that the detective is retired from the force. Oliver then tells the tale of his fourth and final year at an exclusive Shakespeare acting conservatory, and the events of one fateful night where he and the 6 other classmates in his graduating cohort host a party that goes awry, resulting in one the students, Richard, dead in a lake. While it looks like a simple accident that occurred in drunkenness, the detectives on the case aren’t so sure that there wasn’t foul play. Oliver recounts not only that night, but some of the time leading up to it, showing an increasing violence in the Richard towards his friends, as well as the emotional turmoil and semester after the incident which leads to Oliver’s eventual arrest. But who is really to blame?
While M.L. Rio certainly delivers an engaging mystery overall, but unfortunately it fizzled out a little bit at the end for me. I think it just got a little too caught up in the character’s relationship melodrama to really stick the landing. These students and their lives are, in a word, messy. And while that can be very entertaining and interesting to dig into the psychology of it all, so much of this story was wrapped up in how these students go about their complicated relationships, how they deal with the consequences of their actions, and their decisions in how to protect themselves and others in the fallout of Richard’s death. But they are young, you know? So they do what young people do, and it’s understandable and realistic but also sometimes so annoying.
What is really interesting in this novel is the descriptions of the plays that they put on, and how they come to develop certain pieces, or take part in experimental, semi-improvisational work. There are also strong ties to the tragedy arcs of Shakespeare presented here, so I definitely understand the connection and meaning of the actions take near the end of the novel. They work to a point, but there is something that still feels so futile and inevitable about how it all plays out, which is a bit frustrating.
So in the end, If We Were Villains was entertaining and spun a good story for the most part, until a bit of a dip at the end in addition to some frustrating characters and relationships throughout. Your mileage on it may vary, however, depending on how much you can handle pretentious theatre kids (to which I admittedly have a reasonably high tolerance).