Summary: Oliver Marks has just served ten years in jail – for a murder he may or may not have committed. On the day he’s released, he’s greeted by the man who put him in prison. Detective Colborne is retiring, but before he does, he wants to know what really happened a decade ago.
As one of seven young actors studying Shakespeare at an elite arts college, Oliver and his friends play the same roles onstage and off: hero, villain, tyrant, temptress, ingenue, extra. But when the casting changes, and the secondary characters usurp the stars, the plays spill dangerously over into life, and one of them is found dead. The rest face their greatest acting challenge yet: convincing the police, and themselves, that they are blameless.
Genre: mystery, thriller, contemporary
This is a PSA that dark academia has my heart completely and absolutely no other genre in the entire world can compare to how If We Were Villains makes me feel. I know I’ve been throwing out five-star reviews pretty frequently lately, but I truly have not been this enamored with a book since I read The Maidens by Alex Michaelides last year. I know that this book is going to stay with me for a long time, and even though I’m usually not someone who rereads, I cannot wait to revisit this and fall in love all over again.
I feel like I should start this off by saying I am not a Shakespeare fan in the slightest. I’ve always found his work exhausting and dull, and I’m pretty unfamiliar with a majority of his work for that reason. However, that obviously didn’t hold me back from loving this book, which is about students at a college that only study and perform Shakespearean plays. When I first started reading, I found myself skimming over the Shakespeare quotes or scenes, and I absolutely do not recommend that.
The genius here is that the lives of these seven characters are so entwined in Shakespeare’s words and vice versa. The actors tended to play the stereotyped role of themselves (the pretty girl is the vixen, the charismatic one is always the lead), so they were oftentimes showing their emotions through Shakespeare’s words rather than their own. What I loved most was how much their personal lives mimicked the plays, even in the most subtle of ways. If there was tension between characters in the play, those characters acting it out usually had the same tension in their personal lives. If there was drama or anger, the scenes in the play depicted that also.
“How could we explain that standing on a stage and speaking someone else’s words as if they are your own is less an act of bravery than a desperate lunge at mutual understanding? An attempt to forge that tenuous link between speaker and listener and communicate something, anything, of substance.”
I found myself pleasantly surprised that, while this is a murder mystery, the story mainly focuses on the lives of the seven students and how their worlds collide and crumble when one of the people in their friend group is found dead. This is a drama before it is a mystery novel, and I loved it for that. Because of that, my heart ached for each and every one of these characters. I fell so in love with their troupe and found myself so emotionally attached to them.
The entire story is technically told in flashback form when one of the group members gets out of prison for allegedly murdering his friend, and honestly I found these present day scenes so jarring and so far removed from how deeply intwined I was in the rest of the story. Any time there was a break to present day, I couldn’t wait to get back into the real story, because it was truly a creative masterpiece that captivated me from the beginning.
And I would have been okay with it never letting me go.