If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio | Review

For those of you unaware, this is a literary/general fiction book that’s also kind of a mystery/thriller. It’s not wholly a mystery, and I would debate calling it a thriller at all.

The premise is this: it’s 1997 and there are seven friends who are in their fourth year of the (Shakespeare-only) drama program at their university, and at the beginning of the book one of the friends—our main character, Oliver—is getting released from his 10-year prison sentence for something that happened in their final year of school. This book goes back and forth between 1997 Oliver and the 2007 Oliver that is explaining what really happened that year to a now-former police officer who just wants to know the truth.

Before we delve into my thoughts on this book, I need to put out a content warning for a few things that happen in this book: physical violence, suicide attempt, overall poor representation of sexuality, mention of an eating disorder.

If you’re curious about the discussion on sexuality, I’ll have to direct you to my goodreads review of this book since both the author and the novel treat sexuality as a plot twist and a spoiler. I personally don’t agree with this. Sexuality should never be a plot twist, whether your book takes place in 2017, 1997, 1827, or 4207. Rio’s handling of sexuality is almost entirely why I gave this book 1 star.

In my goodreads review, I also break down in detail each of the content warnings above, so please go check that out if those are things that will affect you.

NOW. Onto the actual review of the book.

Even if I could push aside my feelings about Rio’s poor treatment of sexuality (spoiler: I couldn’t), then this would have been at most a three star read but more likely a two and half. On my rating scale, 2.5 is just average and a 3 is average but still enjoyable. With a different ending, this could have been a three. Take out the “sexuality is a plot twist” aspect and this would easily have been a four star read.

This is the debut novel from Rio, and it shows in the writing. There are certain plot conveniences that happen because this story is told in first person and Oliver needs to be privy to certain information to make the story move forward.

Also, in a clear attempt to not use the phrase “I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding” Rio uses “I breathe out a breath I didn’t know I was holding” which made me stop reading for a solid two minutes because I was laughing so hard.

Story-wise there’s nothing horribly original here. Many people (almost everyone) has compared this to The Secret History by Donna Tartt, but I haven’t read that book. While not able to speak with any level of expertise on the topic, based on reviews, there are a striking number of similarities between the two, but there is no mention of Tartt in the Acknowledgements or the Author’s Note so the similarities could be coincidental.

However, instead of classics, this group is obsessed with Shakespeare. So much so that they often have whole exchanges in which they are quoting the Bard like a conservative Christian would quote the Bible. When it's just a line thrown into the dialogue, it's not distracting and usually quite clever, but when they get into multiple page-long exchanges at too many points in the story, it's very easy to just skim over them.

It also made me feel very pretentious and frankly bad that I've ever enjoyed Shakespeare. I feel like I need to go wash my mouth out with As You Like It.

Would I recommend this? No, I gave it one star. If you really want to read it, I’d tell you to go ahead and read it for yourself. The things that bogged down my reading experience may not hinder yours at all, but they were things that I hadn't seen mentioned in reviews and had I known them, I wouldn’t have read this book.

If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio
Published: 11 April 2017 by Flatiron Books
Format - Length: Hardcover - 352 pages
Source: Library
Genre: Adult Fiction, Mystery, Historical Fiction
Goodreads | My Goodreads Review
Enter the players. There were seven of us then, seven bright young things with wide precious futures ahead of us. Until that year, we saw no further than the books in front of our faces.

On the day Oliver Marks is released from jail, the man who put him there is waiting at the door. Detective Colborne wants to know the truth, and after ten years, Oliver is finally ready to tell it.

Ten years ago: Oliver is one of seven young Shakespearean actors at Dellecher Classical Conservatory, a place of keen ambition and fierce competition. In this secluded world of firelight and leather-bound books, Oliver and his friends play the same roles onstage and off: hero, villain, tyrant, temptress, ingĂ©nue, extra. But in their fourth and final year, the balance of power begins to shift, good-natured rivalries turn ugly, and on opening night real violence invades the students’ world of make believe. In the morning, the fourth-years find themselves facing their very own tragedy, and their greatest acting challenge yet: convincing the police, each other, and themselves that they are innocent.

Part coming-of-age story, part confession, If We Were Villains explores the magical and dangerous boundary between art and life. In this tale of loyalty and betrayal, madness and ecstasy, the players must choose what roles to play before the curtain falls.


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