If We Were Villains
When I was an undergraduate, I went to a small liberal arts college with a high concentration of music majors. Some of these music majors --- the ones I encountered in my science and history courses --- were there to get a bachelor of arts, just like any English or math major at our college. But a smaller group --- the mysterious bachelor of music students --- seemed to spend virtually all of their time in one another’s company, rarely leaving the music building to interact with the rest of us and, when they were spotted on campus, were known to break into song (four-part harmony, no less) or correctly identify the pitch of a dropped fork in the cafeteria.
These mysterious conservatory students immediately sprang to mind when I read IF WE WERE VILLAINS, which focuses on a similarly insular group of theater students. But in M. L. Rio’s novel, murder is the inevitable result of this intensity and isolation.
"IF WE WERE VILLAINS offers not only a suspenseful, Shakespeare-tinged murder plot but also a rare glimpse into the rarefied atmosphere of a conservatory school like Dellecher --- and at the passions that simmer barely below the surface in this unusual environment."
Like a Shakespearean play, IF WE WERE VILLAINS is divided into five acts, each with a prologue (set approximately 10 years after the novel’s primary events take place, in 1997). It’s set at the fictional Dellecher Classical Conservatory in rural Illinois. Dellecher is housed on the grounds of an old country estate, and now boasts some of the best, most competitive programs available in music, dance, philosophy and theater. The book is narrated by Oliver Marks, possibly the weakest link among the seven fourth-year theater students. Oliver’s tragic flaw --- according to the brutal exercise their acting professor forces them to undergo near the start of the academic year --- is being too nice, and over the course of five acts, the reader wonders how this fault will play out.
Oliver is always the last to be cast, so he largely avoids the kinds of competitiveness and jealousy that can poison the relationships of other theater students in his year. Their group is assigned to perform “Julius Caesar” during the fall semester --- as well as the traditional, unrehearsed Halloween performance of “Macbeth” and scenes from “Romeo and Juliet” at Christmastime. As tempers fuel and mount, and at least one actor grows increasingly unhinged, elements of all these plays seem to come to life a little too vividly --- both before and after one of the fourth-year students turns up dead.
Oliver and his friends speak a sort of Shakespearean patois, the kind of dialogue that might seem affected or inauthentic if not for the intensity with which these talented and dedicated students approach their craft. Theater students at Dellecher study and perform nothing but Shakespeare for four years running. Is it any wonder that they should internalize the Bard’s words to this extent?
Less successful in this debut novel are the prologue sections of each act, which find an older (and wiser?) Oliver returning to Dellecher in the company of the detective who investigated the crime a decade before. This framing story ostensibly serves as the impetus for Oliver’s recounting of these events, but is largely unnecessary to the plot and contributes little to the drama that unfolds.
That said, IF WE WERE VILLAINS offers not only a suspenseful, Shakespeare-tinged murder plot but also a rare glimpse into the rarefied atmosphere of a conservatory school like Dellecher --- and at the passions that simmer barely below the surface in this unusual environment.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on April 14, 2017