I love books like this. Books of obsession, betrayal, of the relentless pursuit of perfection, of beauty, aesthetics. I love to languish in a book that gives me a glimpse into a possible alternate reality of my own life.
At the heart of M.L. Rio’s debut novel If We Were Villains is a troupe of Shakespearean scholars – seven drama students in their final year at Dellecher Classical Conservatory, an elite school for the arts. Pretentious, proud, and pretty. They are the kings and queens, the gods of their school, (seemingly) untouchable; but they are blind to what they know best: Shakespeare.
Narratives like If We Were Villains make me long to appear as a player in its pages. To be part of that clique, to sit with them “always surrounded by books and words and poetry”. There is a strange kind of magic to know that somehow you’ve made it into the ranks of a set, a secret club, a society, an inner circle. It’s exhilarating, and exciting. But it’s bittersweet because it’s selfish, unsustainable, and impossible.
For a debut author, M.L. Rio’s voice is sharp, intense, and fresh; she was able to take the oft overdone campus novel and make it new. It seems as if it’s not only her ability to write, and write well, that makes the novel shine, but also her absolute obsession with Shakespeare. Almost every single page has a reference to Shakespeare’s works. Be it in dialogue, characterization, or theme, it permeates the plot. But it’s not clunky or awkward – it doesn’t feel like your high school English teacher is trying to shove a play script down your throat – it feels natural and normal and new. Ultimately, If We Were Villains is a testament to the ever-relevant themes that lie on the page (and stage) of Shakespeare’s plays: fate and free will, obsession, ambition, and secrets.
Oliver Marks is our narrator, spectacularly ordinary while the rest of the thespians are anything but – “hero, villain, tyrant, temptress” – with Oliver as the extra, the one who fills in the gaps. It’s through Oliver’s eyes that we see the others: the tempestuous leader Richard, wraith Wren, alluring Meredith, erratic Alexander, charming James, and elusive Pip. And it’s through his eyes we idolize their every movement and decision. Together they are perfect. But, tight-knit and living on top of one another, their lives inevitably begin to fall apart as the lines between role and reality begin to blur.
Despite living and breathing the Bard (they even speak to one another in Shakespearean phrases and fragments), they are unable to see how closely their own lives mirror that of a Shakespearean Tragedy. They forget that those at the top, have nowhere to go but down.
It might seem easy to roll your eyes at the pretentiousness of the characters in this novel; to judge their flaws, and laugh at their romantic entanglements. But If We Were Villains tricks you. I always like to insist I’m an impartial reader – cool and detached and objective – but M.L. Rio’s unreliable narrator drew me in and made me realize that I love going along with it all.
I want to be tricked. I want to fulfil the role of the perfect reader – one who gives herself fully to the narrative, delighting in the twists, being surprised at the turns, and left (at the turn of the final page) with a book hangover that will leave me debilitated for days – wishing I could unread the book, just so I can experience the pure pleasure of reading it for the first time once again.