“Do you blame Shakespeare for any of it?”
The question is so unlikely, so nonsensical coming from such a sensible man, that I can’t suppress a smile. “I blame him for all of it,” I say.
I first came across If We Were Villains when I stumbled upon Chaima’s 5-star review for it on Goodreads. We all know how beautiful Chaima’s reviews are, so naturally I was immediately convinced to read this. I admit that neither dark academia nor adult books are my type, but this book worked for me nonetheless.
In If We Were Villains, Oliver Marks, newly released from prison, recounts his and six other pretentious actors’ experiences in their fourth year of studying and performing Shakespeare. One of the members of their group, Richard, increasingly grows violent, until his untimely death. Supposedly, the death was an accident, but the ghost of Richard haunts the remaining six of the group for months—and even years—later.
Throughout the book, the main characters perform numerous Shakespearean tragedies, and I think that if I knew the plot lines of these plays more, my reading experience would’ve been more immersive. The author also dropped a lot of nods to Shakespeare in this book, all of which flew over my head because the closest I’ve come to studying Shakespeare is studying a little bit of Macbeth for English class last year.
Also, I had a bit of a hard time getting into the story because it was initially a little slow moving. The characters tend to sprinkle bits of lines from Shakespeare plays into everyday conversations, and I had zero clue what they were saying.
But what this book did succeed in was differentiating seven people from each other pretty early on.
- Oliver– The extra, who is also our main protagonist. At times it felt like his first person narration was that of a third person narrator, which marvelously showed how overshadowed he is by the others in the group.
- James– The hero, and one of the most talented actors in the group. His relationship with Oliver is…. complex, but I think that its beauty lies in its complexity. Even though they’re both questionable, I just want them to be happy okay
- Richard– The tyrant and the most talented actor of the seven, who starts to get alarmingly volatile and arrogant. His death impacts everyone in the group in severe ways.
- Meredith– The temptress, who literally everyone is physically attracted to.
- Wren– The ingenue (innocent and girl next door-like), who takes the death of Richard extremely hard since they were cousins.
- Alexander– The villain. Frequently stoned and also gay.
- Filippa– An extra, similar to Oliver, but one of the coolest ones in the bunch. She’s the friend you go to if you want to hide a dead body, and I’m so sad that she’s not appreciated as an actor because my girl deserves better.
All of the main characters are perfectly fleshed out, which is no easy feat considering that there are seven of them. I like that the roles they’re usually cast as play a huge part in their personalities and help us distinguish them from one another. All of them are horrible in their own ways, and watching their descent into madness after Richard’s death is so fun—a modern Shakespearean tragedy indeed.
At first, everyone is keen to play off his death as an accident. They find him on the brink of death, but after some negotiating amongst themselves, they decide that it’s best to let Richard die as to end his reign of terror.
We cracked up. But we didn’t really shatter until we came back together again.
The six start to unravel because of their shared guilt and PTSD after this incident. And once they find out more about Richard’s murder, they finally come undone. The ending is, in the opinion of someone who is not well-versed in tragedies or Shakespeare at all, so fitting.
This book gets pretty dark, and to be honest, I don’t think all of the themes were handled respectfully. Maybe this is normal in adult novels because they’re naturally grittier? Anyways, I’d recommend this book nonetheless. It was so well-written and clearly well-researched. I think that Shakespeare and classic nerds will get a lot out of this book, as in, a lot.
More About the Book
Publication date: April 11th 2017
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Age group & genre: Adult, mystery, dark academia
Rep: main m/m romance, gay side character, Jewish side character
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.
Content warningsdeath, murder, physical abuse, slut shaming, homophobic comments, unchallenged use of a slur for Romani people, drug overdose, PTSD depiction, depression depiction, suicide, self-harm, and mention of an eating disorder (and an insensitive comment about it)
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Have you read If We Were Villains? Do you want to?