If We Were Villains
“Actors are by nature volatile – alchemic creatures composed of incendiary elements, emotions and ego and envy. Heat them up, stir them together, and sometimes you get gold. Sometimes disaster.”
Reading this novel was a very interesting experience. I picked up If We Were Villains while browsing a bookstore and, uncharacteristically, decided to buy it without knowing anything about the author and without having heard anything about the book. From the synopsis on the back it sounded similar to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which I really enjoyed, so I thought I would give it a try.
If We Were Villains tells the story of seven drama students at an elite arts college whose on-stage rivalries and temptations slowly pervade their own lives. If I am completely honest, when I started reading this book it seemed like a worse version of The Secret History with characters who were more immature and annoying than those from the similar story. While these two novels do have many things in common and seem at times almost too similar, there are aspects of If We Were Villains that made me continue to read instead of dismissing it as a second version of the same story. Most significantly, I came to be really involved with the characters and their varied relationships.
I was also initially bothered by the narrative style in which M.L. Rio integrates Shakespearean verse into the students’ conversations and also breaks up the dialogue with names and lines rather than with quotation marks. As I got farther into the book I found that this became less and less noticeable and I wasn’t bothered by the flow of sometimes very obscure dialogue. I will say that I sometimes skimmed over the larger sections of dialogue that were written in verse – probably a byproduct of growing to dislike Shakespeare through terrible high school teachers. That being said, within the first 100 pages I was completely pulled into the story and ended up reading the book very quickly.
The sense of claustrophobia that this novel gave me was very chilling. The longer this story developed in the same spaces with the same characters, the smaller the world of the novel began to feel and the more I felt like I needed a breath of fresh air. This was a really remarkable experience where Rio was able to mimic the seclusion these characters must have been feeling as the plot unfolds and allow her readers to feel that same unease and confinement.
The plot of this novel was intriguing to me for the way it always seemed like it was about to end. Right from the beginning of the novel, the reader learns that some tragedy occurred at the college among these seven students and as the story starts to be told by Oliver, the narrator and one of the students, it seems like the action is imminent. This is true, but then there continue to be more twists and turns and I was never quite sure when the big reveal would be made, or whether the last big “aha moment” I had read had in fact been the big reveal. I think this sense of anticipation and suspense was what kept me interested in the story despite the very blunt foreshadowing throughout the novel.
I think, more than anything, this is the story of relationships defined by ambiguity. The students, who are together continually for four years of drama schooling, in which vulnerability is unavoidable, share intense but strange intimacies where lines are blurred and feelings are confused. The emotion Rio depicts these characters feeling is immense, being described in the story as a combination of the emotions of the characters they are playing and their own already complicated emotions. I finished this story with a sense of emotional exhaustion and a love for several characters who I might not otherwise have related to. I started off hating this book, but I made that decision much too quickly and dismissively. I’m glad I continued reading because I ended up thoroughly enjoying the characters and the dark, beautiful, lives that they live.