Thursday, September 13, 2018

Book 146: If We Were Villains



"Ten years of trying to explain Dellecher, in all its misguided magnificence, to men in beige jumpsuits who never went to college or never even finished high school has made me realize what I as a student was willfully blind to: that 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 so long as it was offered at the altar of the Muses."

Dates read: May 15-20, 2017

Rating: 7/10

For someone who's been dead for over 500 years, William Shakespeare's still pretty damn popular. It seems like there's at least one major screen adaptation every year. And everyone reads at least one of his plays at some point in high school, right? They're probably the only plays which most people have actually read all the way through in their lives (I include myself in this number, I don't particularly care for reading plays). While some people hate his stuff and most feel more-or-less indifferent, there are also some people who REALLY love it. I'm not one of those people, but I do have a favorite of his works (Much Ado About Nothing) and still regret that I didn't get a chance to take a course focused on Shakespeare in college from a legendary professor.

It's a group of people who are super duper into Shakespeare that is the focus of M. L. Rio's If We Were Villains. The book mostly follows seven Shakespearean acting students in their senior year at an exclusive arts college. We know something big and bad happened, because the book opens with one of the seven (Oliver, our protagonist) being released from prison after a decade. He agrees to return to his alma mater and speak to the detective who put him behind bars to finally reveal the true story of what happened all those years ago.

Based on the length of sentence alone, it shouldn't be surprising that what happened was that someone died. The who and the how I'll leave for the reading of it, because the bigger issue is what happened after that person died. The way the remaining members of the group deal with the death, and how it changes their relationships with each other, both on and off the stage. They'd each developed a little niche over their years together (the king, the femme fatale, the good guy, the ingenue, the villain, etc), and the removal of one of the spokes of the wheel renders the structure unstable.

If you've read The Secret History, a lot of that will sound pretty familiar to you. Indeed, it's pretty obvious that Donna Tartt's debut novel was a significant source of inspiration for Rio for her own. And that's fine, Tartt doesn't own the concept of a tight-knit group of students studying an obscure subject at an exclusive private college dealing with the fallout from the death of one of their own. But here's the thing: if you're going to write a book with strong parallels to a novel that's been consistently popular since it was published 25 years ago, you have do it at least as well or better. And although I want to make it clear that I did enjoy reading If We Were Villains (I did love The Secret History, after all), Rio didn't quite hit that mark.

The characters fall a little too neatly into the roles they fill onstage: Richard, the king-type, really is a raging egomaniac; Meredith the femme fatale really is a sexpot; Wren the ingenue really is demure and sweet, etc etc. Where this fails most problematically is that the "background player" types are kind of underdeveloped, and that's Oliver and Filippa. Oliver, you'll remember, is the main character and while it's not unusual for a reader-insert-character protagonist to be kind of bland, Oliver never really captured or held interest for me. Filippa is the only other member of the group that doesn't come from privilege and the small peeks we get at who she is make her easily the most potentially interesting character, and it's frustrating that she's given the short shrift. The plot developments, too, weren't handled especially deftly. I'm generally not good at anticipating plot twists, but I called nearly all of the major ones easily. Rio's prose is solid, though, and I'd definitely be open to reading more from her in the future. I'd recommend this to people who loved The Secret History and want to read something similar, but if you haven't read that book yet, it's better than this one.

Tell me, blog friends...are there "if you liked that, you'll love this" books that you feel pulled off being better than the inspiration?

One year ago, I was reading: Valley of the Dolls (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Smoke

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