If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio
“If We Were Villains is written with the intention of paying homage to William Shakespeare—who has had more than enough defamers, detractors, and deniers. (Lord, what fools these mortals be.)”
Oliver Marks is finally getting out of prison. For what, we don’t know. What we do know is that in the September of 1997 Oliver roamed the halls of Dellecher Classical Conservatory with six other thespians, friends, and fellow lovers of Shakespeare for the fourth and final year. Through intensive classes, grueling rehearsals, and long study sessions, the seven spent nearly every waking moment together. But as they prepare for their upcoming performance of Julius Caesar, something in the group’s dynamic begins to slowly shift.
Through Oliver’s captivating narration the reader follows the lives of Dellecher’s top theatre students as they navigate their roles on and offstage. But when the drama begins to follow its way offstage, the curtain call is only the beginning.
“The number of auditions under my belt didn’t matter; the anxiety never left me,” (page 14).
“I, on the other hand, was average in every imaginable way: not especially handsome, not especially talented, not especially good at anything but just good enough at everything that I could pick up whatever slack the others left,” (page 16).
After a slightly awkward pause in which I exchanged quick baffled glances with Filippa and Alexander, Meredith said, ‘Did that just happen? For God’s sake, it’s just a play.’
‘Well.’ Frederick sighted, removed his glasses, and began to polish them on the hem of his shirt. ‘Duels have been fought over less,'” (page 52).
“There had always been small rivalries between us, but never such an open display of hostility. With a sip of tea I persuaded myself that we were all simply overreacting. 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,” (page 53).
“Silence settled, and I was struck by the senseless idea that we and everything around us were made of glass. I was afraid to breathe, afraid to move, afraid something might break,” (page 77).
“The lake, the broad black water, lurked in the background of every scene we played after that—like a set from a play we did once shuffled to the back of the scene shop where it would have been quickly forgotten if we didn’t have to walk past it every day. Something changed irrevocably, in those few dark minutes James was submerged, as if the lack of oxygen had caused all our molecules to rearrange,” (page 79).
“Though the timeline is clear in my head, explaining it to someone else is a curious task, simple in theory but painstaking in practice, like assembling a long line of dominoes. One event inevitably leads to the next,” (page 145).
“I gaze across the lake at the top of the Tower. A large bird—a hawk, maybe—soars in long lazy circles over the trees, an elegant black boomerang against the silvery sky,” (page 147).
“She folded her arms and said, ‘I’m going to bed unless you’ve got something to say.’
I didn’t. I desperately wanted to, but my mind was blank. For someone who loved words as much as I did, it was amazing how often they failed me,” (page 211).
“‘Anything can feel like punishment if it’s taught poorly,'” (page 267).
“I shifted and my shoes squeaked on the mirror, James turned and caught my eye. But I stayed where I was, afraid to move toward him, afraid I might lose my footing on solid ground, detach from what had anchored me before and drift out into the void of space—a vagabond, wandering moon,” (page 305).
My boyfriend bought me this book for my anniversary and I don’t think he could have done a better job. Usually he’ll buy a book I’ve talked about, but this time he decided to find something new and I was pretty impressed by his choice. I’ve read quite a few Shakespeare plays, although I’m no expert by any means, so he figured I’d enjoy the way Rio integrates lines from various plays into the text. He was very right.
From the very beginning, I was hooked. From the way the characters use Shakespeare’s words in their everyday conversations to the fast-paced plot, I couldn’t stop reading. The characters are witty and fun to follow, but also extremely intelligent and cunning. In addition, their use of conversational Shakespeare not only helped characterize them, but it was incredibly fun to read. And again, the book overall is M.L. Rio’s tribute to Shakespeare, so expect to see lots of lines, quotes, and small easter eggs throughout the story. However, if you’re not a Shakespeare buff, don’t worry. I think as long as you’re willing to step into the minds the young actors you can catch on fairly quickly.
I appreciated the extent Rio characterizes her leading characters. There were a few I thought remained somewhat underdeveloped, but the majority of the characters are distinctly illustrated from their physicality to their innermost thoughts. The book is narrated by Oliver which only gives us a narrow perspective, but there are many ways in which we are able to get a deeper look at the other characters’ fears and motivations. Oliver himself is at times mysterious in his intentions, but overall he’s an insightful narrator as he’s the most removed from the group of friends.
This last semester I took my first fiction writing course as I’m an English major (and in the Dual-Degree Teaching Program at my university) with an emphasis on Creative Writing. The reason I mention my class is because I noticed myself reading this book through the lens of someone who wants to be a writer. My professor consistently advised us that when we read books we should search for what appeals to us and what doesn’t because it can be extremely useful when we begin writing. While I was reading If We Were Villains I couldn’t help but notice all of the beautiful metaphors. I included a couple of ones I loved in the memorable quotes section, but there were so many gorgeous lines scattered throughout the book. M.L. Rio’s writing is not only very meticulous and engaging to read, but her way of describing landscapes and characters is very three-dimensional. I could see the lake at the school and the characters seemed to jump off the page.
To sum it up, this book was a joy to read. When I thought I knew where the plot was going it twisted and kept me reading. I became invested in the characters, and I grew to love theatre even more with each page. The book hits so many marks because it’s hard to write a great plot with quality writing, but Rio checked off every box.
If you’re interested in learning more about the author, I’ve included a link to her website and Goodreads page below.