If We Were VillainsIf We Were Villains by M.L. Rio
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“There are things they don’t tell you about magical places– that they are as dangerous as they are beautiful.”

This book is what happens when The Secret History mates with Brideshead Revisited while using Shakespearean DNA to fill in genetic gaps and avoid congenital birth defects.

For me, this book was a balance between sharp dialogue and great prose, and unending tedium. M.L. Rio utilized the “theatre kid” stereotype to the hilt– meaning our six main character’s drank too much, used drugs, and emoted enough for 15 people resulting in extreme emotional reactions to every situation. When taken in the context of the overall plot, this was NOT a bad thing. The characters were undeniably well written and suitable complex. However, it made the characters extremely unlikable and un-relatable.

How unreachable it is for the reader to connect with the characters is a problem considering how there is little to now motivation for the actions, emotions, and events that led to our main character telling his story to a retired cop after being released from prison. (Personally, I set the book down thinking that all the involved should have gone to prison and the at least one professor should have been fired for endangering the mental health of her students…you will know which one when you read it.)

But let’s get back to the story.

“You can justify anything if you do it poetically enough.”

Our little play opens as our main man is being let out of prison. He agrees to tell the truth about what happened to the man who put him in the clink on the provisos that it go nowhere , it be done at the scene of the crime, and that he will never speak of it again. Our main man (not a hero) is the quintessential doomed, suffering male that we are suppose to suffer along with (I was not suffering.) Not my fave in the character development realm, to be honest. But the well written characters and flowing prose did drag me in and I could not help but devour, yes devour, the novel.

The book was written as a series of “Acts,” with each act being a cross between a play and a short novella. We began each act in the present but the rest of it was immersed a decade before in the exclusive art school that seemed to devour its students and spit them out raw. If anything seemed evil in this novel, that school certainly did.

“…Dellecher was less an academic institution than a cult. When we first walked through those doors, we did so without knowing that we were now part of some strange fanatic religion where anything could be excused as long as it was offered at the altar of the Muses.”

We move through the past where emotionally confused college students compete with each other for lead roles and a place in the next academic school year. It is a race to make it to the 4th year. And our little group of players have not only made it, become a sort of family in and of themselves. They loved and hated each other. And it was the hate and confusion {of young adult college kids} that ultimately tore them apart.

“I am myself indifferent honest,” I admitted. “But yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves, all. Believe non of us.”

When the star player does not get chosen for a main role, he becomes unhinged. His attacks on friend and foe bring out the worst in him. But worse for the reader, it seems, well, extreme and out of know where. It is like the other characters knew a secret they never bother to tell us about their relationship with this young man. …Like they suddenly feel that he was never a part of their little family but tolerated him because he made it along with them. This does not fit the dynamic that was set by the author, however. We will call this main point of plot contention number one. With the incomplete background, what ultimately happened just does not make sense. I found myself confused for a portion and then when five of the six made what we will call the “BAD DECISION,” well I found myself thinking about how that escalated rather extremely and out of nowhere.

“Whatever we did– or more crucially, did not do– it seemed that so long as we did it together, our individual sins might be abated.”

After the little family bans together, they begin to fall apart. Reality and fiction blur for them. Individually they are breaking. They cling together and yet push away from each other. They can trust no one but each other; and yet at the same time being together only worsens their inner turmoil. It is only a matter of time before it all falls apart. But then, we already know that. After all, no secret can be kept forever. Finally, it all comes crashing down in a way that Shakespeare would have been proud of, and no one leaves unscathed. Not even the police officer who sends a man to prison.

“Would thou do such a deed for all the world?”
“The world’s a huge thing: it is a great price for a small vice.”

Within the main plot are undercurrents that rip apart what the students think they know of themselves and ultimately it is this subplot and its undercurrents that cause the whole story unfold. With nods at everything from physical and psychological abuse, to family drama, to sexual confusion…this book is definitely a roller coaster of emotion and vice. Add in the frequent, and increasingly redundant, Shakespearean dialogue, this story has all the makings of one of the great Bard’s tragedies.

There was one exception to the tragedy, the ending. Quite frankly, I hated it. I was all set up to like the ending until the last few paragraphs when the author threw something in that seemed completely unsuitable for the rest of the tale. It was not at all pleased. There was no reason for the twist and it seemed rushed and thrown in on a whim. Luckily the book was over because it was enough of a loathing that I would have stopped reading it right then. This was the big plot contention number two.

“I need language to live, like food– lexemes and morphemes and morsels of means to sustain me with the knowledge that yes, there is a word for this. Someone else has felt it before.”

This book had little motivational sense but the prose was engaging. My plot contentions were pretty significant (especially considering I really only had two) because they were the underlying reason for the whole book. I also wish the author would have used LESS quotations as dialogue. This was my main tedium. M.L. Rio writes beautifully. There was no reason for the characters to utilize so much in the way of plays to converse with one another…except that it reiterated for us that they all were slightly to severely unhinged. Being drunk and/or high while degenerating into verse makes sense for theatre kids. But utilizing it to converse in normal circumstances was a bit overmuch after awhile. I admit that it made me begin to skim. And the worst part of it was that I missed NOTHING by skimming.

This book was an engaging read despite my problems with the plot and extreme dislike of the characters. Once you start it you will want to finish it…however it is just not an enjoyable or unique read.

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This ARC was provided by Netgalley for an honest review.