Books Life + Arts

Review: ‘If We Were Villains’ leaves readers thinking

Gerald Sastra/The Cougar

With themes of tragedy, dark academia and mystery, M.L. Rio’s “If We Were Villains” creates a story leaving readers thinking about every detail long after finishing the book.

Set in the late 1990s, the main focus is on seven fourth-year students at an arts conservatory’s acting program focused on William Shakespeare. We meet the book’s narrator Oliver in the prologue of Act I, which is set 10 years after the events of those final years at Dellecher Classical Conservatory, throwing the reader into some non-linear storytelling.

The factor that comes into play throughout the book is Shakespeare. There are references, quotes and full-on parallels to the works of the British playwright, specifically in “King Lear” as it’s performed in the book.

Through Oliver’s point of view, the reader sees events unfold with other characters and their relationship dynamic with him. The entire book contains a mystery looming over the pages, as the very first time we meet Oliver is him getting out of prison. The reader now has to figure out how Oliver got to where he is now.

Some might consider the “If We Were Villains” narrator unreliable, but Oliver’s perspective should be taken with a grain of salt.  Rather, it is up to the reader whether to think like Oliver or not.

The layout of the story is much like a play itself to tie together the drama. In the five acts, each scene presents as chapters, making solving the book’s mystery well-paced.

The story provides small details of foreshadowing and parallels that lead to the ultimate conclusion that Oliver, while in jail for Richard’s murder, is not responsible.

Rio is clever in connecting dots that are hard to see. For example, a repeated comment the characters in the novel make is that Richard, who plays King Lear in their current production, dies in Act III. It is no coincidence when Richard himself dies in the third act of this book.

What makes the book the obsessive read that it is, has to be the connections between the characters.

There is a sense of found family between the seven of them as the environment of this college equivalent is competitive but tight-knit. The characters are surrounded by like-minded individuals and fellow actors, and it shows in how they interact.

While each character is a clear example of the tortured artist trope, all of the actors are type-casted in roles that become a highlight of their personality: James; the hero, Oliver; his sidekick, Meredith; the femme fatale, Alexander; the villain, and so the list goes on.

Becoming attached to the characters and how they all speak to each other is easy because they all understand how important their words are as actors and people. Rio does an amazing job portraying the different levels of passion and work ethic these characters hold.

Probably the most well-done aspect of “If We Were Villains” has to be the relationship between James and Oliver. The two boys were roommates the entirety of their time at Dellecher and bonded in more ways than just best friends.

As the story unfolds, the reader can observe the characters were in love, willing to do anything for one another.

In the last act, it is no surprise when the truth reveals James is the real culprit behind Richard’s murder. By this point in the book, it just makes sense that Oliver would take his love’s blame.

The real gut-wrenching moment comes in the epilogue. Oliver is out of prison, ready to see James after the time he served in his place, but that’s not possible as James is said to have taken his own life in the time they were apart.

The reader gets one last taste of what might have been between James and Oliver through the letter James left him, and there lies Rio’s cliffhanger. Up to the reader now, they decide whether they believe James is still alive or not.

“If We Were Villains” does not have a dull moment as every page holds relevance to the story, whether through how the characters connect or how Shakespeare shaped them all to be, details are not something to skim. It is a book that will leave you thinking for days even after it is all over.

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