“Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
--Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene II
There is something a little mysterious, a little intoxicating about Shakespeare. Of course, for many of us, it is a lot mysterious—in fact, nothing but mysterious—and conjures up memories of long afternoons in dusty high school lit classrooms trying to puzzle through the meaning behind every line, sometimes every word, of Romeo and Juliet.
But to see it performed, that is truly something else, that is the way it was meant to be consumed. It filters down to a part of your soul that feels right, feels true, and even if you can’t quite grasp the meaning of every phrase, you feel something special burning at the core. Or maybe just a tingle.
For the seven students in their last year of theatre study at the elite art school in the novel If We Were Villains, Shakespeare is like this, but also, he is more. They live in the bard’s texts, studying him with such constant devotion that it filters into their real lives.
They talk in texts, frequently, having Shakespearian conversations that all seem peppered with double meanings, hidden layers, and sometimes it is unclear whether you are speaking with an actor or their character.
Each of the seven has their type: strong, leading man Richard; his opposite, the sultry Meredith; the beautiful hero James; the wispy maiden Wren; the fool Alexander; and then there’s Filippa and (our story’s hero) Oliver, who seem to get the leftover roles, slipping into whoever is secondary, but never playing the lead.
Who are they really? Is there a separation between the stage and reality? What happens when that line seems to bend, and then snap?
And snap it does. Oh, yes.
Aren’t you all waiting for the turn?
The book is set up in five acts, much like a play, and while the main action of each follows the seven during their fourth and final year at school, each one begins with a prologue, set ten years in the future.
Oliver has just been released from prison, sentenced for something that happened at school, something that he may or may not have done, and now he’s going to tell the real story. To the man who put him away.
And the curtain rises . . .
Rio holds onto the tension of seven characters very well, stringing them along in an even way, making sure they are all developed characters, and I thought she had a great voice for natural dialogue. I can’t claim to know that much about Shakespeare, but I do dabble a bit and I actually quite enjoyed the Shakespearian language spilled across the pages; it developed the characters in unexpected ways when I stopped to really examine what was going on with the bard’s text. I think it even helped me figure out the twist . . .
The seven kids flit in and out of reality, fighting and giving in to obsession, mimicking the violence and drama of the plays (or is it that the plays begin to mimic their lives?) and they begin to come apart at the seams, each breaking down in their own way.
A very promising debut and interesting character study type of novel from a bold and inspiring voice. The only thing I’d ask for in a follow-up book is to cut down on the adverbs—let your descriptions do the work! Ah, well. Room to grow.
One final thought: The ending will rattle your soul.
Whether you like Shakespeare, don’t remember a bit of it from high school, swoon over the lilting words, or shrink away from them in pure fear, this book has a bit of mystery for everyone and it might even bring you a bit closer to learning the mysterious staying power of the bard.
Get your copy of If We Were Villains
Find out more about the author, M. L. Rio
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Find out more about the publisher, Flatiron Books (Macmillan)
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Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.