If you’ve ever wondered what happens when a group of William Shakespeare nerds studying theater get too into their roles, M. L. Rio’s novel “If We Were Villains” gives a transfixing answer: murder.
When the book opens, Oliver Marks leaves prison after serving a 10-year sentence for murder, and the book slowly reveals the details of the gruesome crime. Retiring detective Joseph Colborne is desperate to know the truth about what happened a decade earlier, and Oliver agrees to tell him — insisting, however, that his account is not an apology. The story that unfolds is a gripping retelling of how a group of seven friends at an elite arts college brought each other to mutual ruin, jumping between Oliver’s past and present.
Each of the seven characters has a distinct role to play, in both their Shakespeare performances and in life. As their personalities shape their performances on stage, the attributes of the characters they play bleed into their real lives. James Farrow, effortlessly handsome and undeniably talented, always plays the hero. Alexander Vass, with his snark and vampiric smile, is their resident villain. Richard Sterling, an ill-tempered bully, impresses and intimidates audiences as the tyrant. Meredith Dardenne, beautiful and fierce, takes the role of the seductress. Wren Sterling, with her classic girl-next-door delicacy, is the ingenue. Filippa Kosta, “cool and chameleonic” and impossible to typecast, only ever serves as the extra. Rounding out the cast is Oliver, who finds himself aggressively average, relegated to the sidekick.
Their individual archetypes lay the basis for their on- and offstage selves, blurring the lines between performance and reality, only to be disrupted when a production of “Macbeth” switches up the usual roles that each character would have received. The seven, once insulated, codependent and guided by their expected roles, see their group dynamic begin to shift and warp as they try to play their new parts. New tensions arise and existing ones escalate until one of the characters ends up dead.
The plot of “If We Were Villains” marks it as a thriller, but as Oliver tells it, the story transforms into an introspective Shakespearean tragedy. I stayed up all night to finish this page-turner, but Oliver’s storytelling manages to feel unhurried as it pulls the reader in. He doesn’t just want you to know what happened; he wants you to live through every triumph and misstep and horror, through all the joy and destruction.
“If We Were Villains” is addictive. It draws you into the thespians’ world of parties, drugs, secrets and obsessions, infecting you with the inability to look away, even while knowing something dark looms. After all, as Oliver explains, “That is how a tragedy like ours or King Lear breaks your heart—by making you believe that the ending might still be happy, until the very last minute.”
The novel presents the quintessential dark academia story, an unofficial subgenre of the “campus novel” that features college-aged academics in one way or another reeling from the psychological consequences of their actions — usually murder. What sets dark academia apart from typical murder mysteries is the focus not necessarily on who did it, but rather why they did it, and “If We Were Villains” explores this question with relish.
It’s fun for me to read a novel set on a college campus, even when these students’ experience is radically different from mine. As a new adult book, “If We Were Villains” serves as a fascinating navigation of a point at which we are all vulnerable to pressures and passions and emotions.
On the surface, this book may seem profoundly pretentious. If I ever met people like these characters, who quote Shakespeare as often as they breathe and compare every moment of their lives to one in a play, I’m certain I would find them unbearable. Yet when Oliver explains, “Our sheer capacity for feeling got to be so unwieldy that we staggered under the weight of it, like Atlas with the weight of the world,” I got chills. “You can justify anything,” he continues, “if you do it poetically enough” — and I had to see what he meant by that.
These Shakespeare nerds may not be the people you want sitting next to you in class, but something about them will make you pause, maybe even make you like them, as I did. Perhaps it is their desperation to understand human nature and their conviction that the words of Shakespeare will afford some answer. Perhaps it is the intensity and confusion of their emotions, their inability to separate themselves from their characters. Regardless, these seven overdramatic thespians sunk their claws into me, and I let them.
This novel is not a light read, but its quick pacing enthralls. Rio’s meticulous, thoughtful characterization makes the characters likable even when they shouldn’t be, the tension of the plot is palpable at every turn, and the incorporation of Shakespeare is never overbearing. “If We Were Villains” offers a dark and intoxicating exploration of humanity, written so exquisitely that it will — hopefully — haunt me forever.
Catriona Kendall is a graduate of the School of Foreign Service. She formerly served as managing editor at The Hoya. Managing Reads appears in print and online every other week.