If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio (Most definitely not the next The Secret History)


“…Dellecher was less an academic institution than a cult. When we first walked through those doors, we did so without knowing that we were now part of some fanatic religion where anything could be excused so long as it was offered at the altar of the Muses. Ritual madness, ecstasy, human sacrifice. Were we bewitched? brainwashed? Perhaps.

I’ve missed it, desperately.”

If the setting of a small college housing artistic students who vibrate with a barely hidden malice seems familiar, perhaps it is because you are thinking of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. But while Tartt’s characters were studying Greek, and Latin, and holding secret seances in a farmer’s field at night, M. L. Rio’s characters are quoting Shakespeare and swimming in a lake as the autumnal season deepens. Yet there is an aura of fear here, too, the knowledge that something has gone terribly wrong, for from the very first chapter one of the men is being released from prison. He has a story to tell.

Oliver’s story is compelling. He tells of his fellow theater students: Wren, Filippa, Meredith, James, Alexander and Richard. For reasons which were never fully explained, Richard is filled with wrath. It is a consuming wrath, exhibited in bullying: teasing, shouting, taunting and hitting. It is no wonder he is found floating in the lake one morning before dawn. His face has been bashed in, he is covered with blood, and it surely looks as if he is dead. But when he calls weakly for help, this group of students who call themselves friends, decide to do nothing. They decide to let him die, in the water, and tell the authorities that they all get along just fine.

It doesn’t ring true to me. From where does Richard’s rage stem? Why agree to tell the police that everyone has been getting along well when clearly they have been tormented? (Surely they must already suspect one another.)  There are blatant disconnects that not only irritate me, they keep this novel from approaching anything near the power of The Secret History.

So while I enjoyed the Shakespeare dramas, the lines from his plays cleverly interwoven into the narrative, and the collegiate setting in which a small band of friends unite; while I think the ending is fairly clever in a Tale Of Two Cities sort of way, this novel ended up being a disappointing read.

Which doesn’t bode well for my opinion of Emily St. John Mandel, author of Station Eleven, who said that it is “A rare and extraordinary novel.”

If only that were so.