Other nights, when he thought I was already dreaming, he slid out of bed, took his coat and shoes, and disappeared into the dark outside. I never asked where he went, worried he wouldn’t ask me to follow. ― M.L. Rio, If We Were Villains
“Do you blame Shakespeare for any of it?”
The question is so unlikely, so nonsensical coming from such a sensible man, that I can’t suppress a smile. “I blame him for all of it.”― M.L. Rio, If We Were Villains
While I didn’t love Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, the story and the setting have stuck with me. If We Were Villains is a book that feels like the author read The Secret History and thought “there is a really good murder mystery in this insanely long book. What if I moved the setting to Illinois and made it about a bunch of obsessed Shakespearean actors instead of Classics students?”
The book opens with the narrator on the day he is released from serving a ten-year prison sentence. He then proceeds to take Detective Colborne, the now-retired investigator assigned to his case, back to the scene of the crime: Dellecher Classical Conservatory in central Illinois. The story unfolds as a series of flashbacks to the fall of 1997 and the start of the fourth and final year for the seven students in the school’s classical Shakespearean acting program. These seven students have survived the rigor and multiple annual “cuts,” which whittled down their cohort until there are only seven of them remaining. The seven of them live together, attend classes together, party together, and, as college students living in close proximity to one another, sleep together.
The cohort consists of Richard, the larger-than-life leading man, his girlfriend Meredith, the sex-pot, Wren, the wide-eyed ingénue and Richard’s cousin, James, the golden boy/hero, Alexander, the fool or villain, Filippa, the backbone of the troupe, and the narrator, Oliver, the generalist/supporting player. From the very beginning, we are told that Oliver is in awe of his fellow thespians and has a bad case of imposter syndrome.
Even though Richard and Meredith are paired up at the beginning, it is easy to see when things begin to fray. There is no lack of unspoken jealousies and insinuations about the nature of the relationships among the classmates. We come to find out that even the best of them are truly awful in some way or another. They are in love with themselves and cannot see beyond their own little insulated world. So basically…”Theatre kids.”
In addition to living together, they are physically isolated from the rest of the school. As by tradition, the fourth years reside in a house with an actual tower, dubbed “The Castle.” The castle is located away from the main campus, on the opposite side of a lake. The only way to access it on foot is by hiking through the forest.
And this is where we come to the final and perhaps most important eighth character: the lake. The lake represents the fears, the destroyed dreams, the jealousies, and, eventually, death. The students are forced to look at it every day. The most harrowing and climactic scenes take place in and around the lake. The staging of Macbeth at the lakeside on Halloween is a masterclass in suspense. You can feel your heart pounding along with the actors as they race amongst the trees and employ the lake and beach fire as a curtain and as spotlights.
I loved this book. Even though I didn’t love a lot of things about it, I loved the feeling I got when I was reading it. It had such a strong sense of place. Like other dark academia books, we are drawn into a world of loaded gazes, unspoken longing, secrets, and betrayals. It is a perfect summer read. I tore through it in four days and probably would have finished it sooner if I didn’t need to sleep or go to work.
I adored the way in which the author rendered the setting. I can picture everything about the campus and the castle and the lake so clearly. The main thing I’m curious about though is why this was set in 1997 as there were no cultural touch points referenced. Usually, books told in flashback format have some sort of cultural anchor, such as a model of car, pop-song, movies playing, or some other relevant event. All I can guess is that it is set in 1997 so as to eliminate the need for internet or cell phones as part of the storytelling.
If you enjoy dark academia and can tolerate an abundance of Shakespeare quotes, then this is a wonderful read. As I got closer to the final climax, I skipped quite a few of the passages from the students’ final performance of King Lear as the double-meaning in the passages and how they mirrored reality were mostly all lost on me. At that point, they are crashing to the finale so I skipped spending any time picking it apart for hidden nuance other than the tragedy of the play overall. I can’t say that the ending was entirely satisfying. But that’s fine. I got what I needed out of it and I may do a re-read when it is cold and rainy and the short winter days call for enjoying a murder mystery beside a glowing fireplace.
Logging this as CBR15 Passport under “Author is new to me.”