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by M.L. Rio
Flatiron Books, April 2017
352 pages
ISBN: 125009528X

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Reminiscent of Tartt's THE SECRET HISTORY, Rio's IF WE WERE VILLAINS sets the reader firmly down in the middle of an insular group of Shakespeare fanatics at a castle-like arts conservatory. The seven fourth-year drama students live, breathe, and speak Shakespeare. As they prepare for performances, they take on the personas of their characters so completely that they speak and act as those characters even outside of the theater. Their constant interacting through Shakespeare's lines seems pretentious, but Rio does a tremendous job of making their obsession seem plausible for these twenty- somethings.

The fourth year at Dellecher Classical Conservatory is set aside for the tragedies. This year it is Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and King Lear. Each member of the group of seven is deeply known by the others, and it is not a surprise when the roles are cast for the first play. As the students immerse themselves in their roles, the brutal nature of the plays transfers to the students' relationships. The intense feelings the students have for one another begin to play out in both emotional and physical ways, both abusive and sensual. By the end of the second play, one of the students is dead and the others are starting a descent into instability or maybe even insanity. By the end, the tragedy of the students' lives has mirrored Shakespeare's tragedies in many ways. If the reader knows the plays well, it will enhance the experience of the book. However, Rio puts enough detail of the plays into the book to help even a Shakespeare novice find the connections.

The book begins with Oliver, one of the students, being released from prison after a decade of incarceration. As he connects with the detective who put him there (but who is no longer with the police force), the book moves between Oliver's meeting with the detective (the Acts) and his explaining to the detective what really happened during that fateful year ten years ago (the Scenes). The intensity of the action, combined with the claustrophobic sense of enthrallment, makes this book almost impossible to put down.

Rio clearly knows her Shakespeare, and she has managed to weave aspects of many, many different plays together to create an engrossing plot. But it is the characterization that truly distinguishes this book. Each of the seven main characters is a full-blown unique individual, whom we come to know deeply almost from the outset. Yet, at the same time, the characters convincingly change, grow, and disintegrate before our eyes. Rio fits them all together into a group that is almost like a separate being, creating a sort of meta-character. As the individuals break down, so does the group.

This book is a debut, and it showcases a wonderful new talent. I am looking forward to seeing what she will do with her sophomore attempt.

Sharon Mensing, retired educational leader, lives, reads, and enjoys the outdoors in rural Wyoming.

Reviewed by Sharon Mensing, April 2017

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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