If We Were Villains
M.L. Rio
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Buy *If We Were Villains* by M.L. Rioonline

If We Were Villains
M.L. Rio
Flatiron Books
368 pages
April 2017
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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“Secrets carry weight like lead.”
Secrets are encrusted into the dark emotion of Shakespeare’s plays in this story of murder and obsession inspired by Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and King Lear. Rio merges their inherent message into the reluctant first-person confession of Oliver, who explains to Joe Colborne, the head of Dellecher Classical Conservatory, about the twists and turns in the final exodus of his life. Outsider Oliver is a bookish, studious Shakespeare aficionado, trying to find a place in the rarified atmosphere of Dellecher. That neither he nor his friends Alexander, James, Richard, Meredith, Philippa, and Wren are particularly likable provides one of the most interesting aspects of Rio’s tale that begins in September 1997, in Oliver’s fourth and final year at Dellecher, and finishes with his eventual release from prison ten years later.

Exclusivity reigns at the Dellecher Academy, where “the players” are bright young things surrounded by books and words and poetry, “all of the fierce passions of the world.” In the course of four years, this “playing company” has been transformed. For three years, Richard has played kings and conquerors while Meredith has been the femme fatale. Alexander and James are the most serious students, while Wren is pretty and frail, a perfect young ingenue. Philippa is reliably brave. Recognizing that he’s not leading man material, lonely, isolated Oliver is doomed to play the supporting role in someone else’s story: “far too many times I had asked myself whether art was imitating life or if it was the other way around.”

For much of the novel, Richard is fueled by rage. The group watch in amazement as he becomes a mirror image of Julius Caesar. At first an unwilling participant, Richard is seduced by Caesar’s passionate missives and penchant for brutality. What starts out as friendly competition, a sense of small rivalries, soon descends into an open display of aggression as Richard broods, soon displaying an unpredictable nature that manifests in violence towards Meredith. The rest of the group are too ill-equipped to handle the level of Richard’s intensity and narcissism. Oliver becomes our primary witness to this shift in the balance of power, culminating on Halloween night and party of bacchanalian proportions, where a reenactment of Macbeth at the lake ends in bloody murder.

Beyond the trees, the sky, the lake and the moon, this bizarre Dionysian bacchanal–the witch scene—ends in both an accidental and, eventually, premeditated murder. Oliver realizes that his childish and shallow infatuation with the group may not be enough for him to swallow their treasure chest of dark secrets. With Richard perpetually out of sight but never out of mind (“as if he had just left the room”), the group simply watch, waiting for the curtain to drop and for their own revenge tragedy to unfold. Oliver’s mosaic of memories take shape “like a stained-glass window” in shards of color and light, ending in the white glow of the moon on the water and “the bright ripe red of blood that creeps out of Meredith’s silk sleeve.” In murder’s aftermath, it becomes painfully clear to Oliver that he and his colleagues have greatly underestimated the enormousness of Richard’s absence.

The good news is that you don’t have to be familiar with Shakespeare to enjoy the novel (although the Shakespeare quotes are sometimes a bit overdone). I am by no means proficient in the Bard’s works, but I’m aware of the basics: the idea of the “fatal flaw” in the tragic hero. The substance of the novel, however, is not in this aspect but rather in character and plot, with the Bard’s plays symbolically framing the action. We are told in the beginning what we believe to be the story’s outcome. What we don’t know is why or how Oliver’s life fell apart or why he’s on the Devil’s own hit list as he watched his innocence slip through his fingers with equal parts eagerness and terror. Ultimately, Oliver’s superficial obsession to fit in and his morbid longing to play the martyr prove to be his undoing. This journey into tragic martyrdom was his doorway into a dark, living, breathing world of heartache, melancholy, and never-ending regret.

Rio evokes Oliver’s state of mind with such intensity that the reader lives and breathes his rarefied life at the exclusive Dellecher Academy. Soon the exchanges between Richard and Meredith signify that their love has become secondary. Perhaps competition is the end game between them, animosity and envy the central weapons. By the guttering half-light, Oliver writes his own tale, drawn to a subversive passion for Meredith as he records the deterioration of his group of friends. The group’s first foray into “the tragic morass” of King Lear leaves Oliver betrayed by his fellow actors, who by nature are volatile and dark alchemic creatures, composed of incendiary elements including emotion and ego and envy.

We feel Oliver’s nostalgia the way we recall our own sharp childhood memories and stop to consider other paths our life could’ve taken. After ten years spent trying to explain Dellecher in all its “misguided magnificence” to the “men in beige,” Oliver comes full circle, recognizing his true desires for what they are and realizing that he never considered the likelihood that Meredith might be guilty of something far worse.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Michael Leonard, 2017

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