“If We Were Villains”

A week ago I was having a bad time with two books. Funny how they turned out. One I gave really disliked and gave up on, the second – M.L.Rio’s “If We Were Villains” – I not only managed to see through to the end, but eventually ended up quite liking.

The original problem? After about fifty pages or so the book had alienated me, and for three reasons: one, it was very monotone and flat in style and without depth, clearly the work of someone young; two, the characters were unrealistic, especially in their persistent quoting of Shakespeare (the juvenile theme again); three, the main male character didn’t resonate as true and had clearly been written by a woman – opposite-sex first person narrative is really hard to do.

And I have two yardsticks. “Elmet” and “The Secret History”. The former is an example of what a brilliant young female novelist can achieve, and the latter – to which “Villains’ was openly compared in the book’s blurb – is simply in a different league. The parallel is understandable given the subject matter, but “Villains’ suffers in consequence.

So why did I carry on reading? Because I found that I wanted to find out what happened. The plot had a secret that I wanted to uncover; it was that simple. And the interesting thing was, as the book progressed, so the writing began to mature. If you read the first thirty pages and the last thirty, it wouldn’t surprise me if you thought they were by different people – or at least the same person with vastly different experiences. Maybe writing the book provided that experience; maybe it was intentional, to represent the ‘growing-up’ of the lead character. But I doubt it…

In any event, although it frustrated me greatly, gradually I grew to like “Villains”. Enough to recommend it? If you could only read one of the two from the genre, read Tartt’s “Secret History”…

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