2 Sentence Summary
In M.L. Rio’s debut novel, If We Were Villains, a tight-knit group of acting students find their friendship getting unraveled as they are cast in unexpected roles, leading to a mysterious death. The story is narrated by Oliver, who confesses to the crime but leaves Detective Colborne questioning the truth.
Summary Read Time: Less than 6 minutes
Actual Book Length: 354
First Published in: 2017
Below is the detailed yet quick If We Were Villains book summary:
Part 1 – Act 1
Our tale commences in a tension-filled room where protagonist Oliver Marks finds himself handcuffed to a table. Retired detective Joseph Colborne, who has long questioned Oliver’s guilt, rejoices at the news of Oliver’s impending parole. Colborne, never convinced of Oliver’s guilt or innocence, prompts Oliver to share the complete truth behind his decade-long imprisonment. In the closing moments of the prologue, Oliver consents.
As Act 1 unfolds, we find Oliver and his friend Richard en route to the Fine Arts Building to audition for Julius Caesar. Their institution, Dellecher, boasts a rigorous academic regime, known for making frequent cuts to its student body. The friends, however, have triumphantly survived three such instances. Post-audition, they anxiously await the casting announcements at their regular haunt, the Bore’s Head bar. While most roles align with Alexander’s predictions, Oliver is unexpectedly assigned two parts, causing a ripple of tension, particularly from Richard, the new Caesar.
The following scenes deepen our understanding of the group dynamics. A lakeside rendezvous sees the group reflecting on their parents’ reactions to their choice of school. Their first class sets the stage for an intensive year, as their teacher-director Gwendolyn presses them to confront their deepest fears, culminating in a public dissection of Meredith’s insecurities. Amid lessons and rehearsals, they find time for a cherished tradition: a Halloween performance of scenes from Macbeth. Oliver, surprisingly cast as Banquo, is joined by all except Richard, who leaves abruptly after reading his role. An unfortunate mishap during combat class ends with Oliver grazed by James’s watch. Meanwhile, rehearsals for Julius Caesar are marred by Richard’s quick temper, putting the group on edge.
Part 2 – Act 2
As the second part of our tale commences, Filippa, having faithfully visited Oliver during his years of incarceration, escorts him back to Dellecher. Their journey, punctuated by an audiobook narration of Irish Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea, stirs emotional memories in Oliver about the cult-like school. Back at Dellecher, they meet Colborne, who hopes to understand the complex past events through Oliver’s recounting.
Dynamics continue to shift in Act 2. Post a photoshoot for Julius Caesar, Alexander reveals that the Halloween incident has strained Meredith and Richard’s relationship. As rehearsals persist, the conflict escalates when Richard’s aggressive actions result in physical harm to James and Meredith. Despite the charged atmosphere, the show goes on. However, during the opening night, a violent incident involving Richard leads Oliver, Alexander, and James to plan retribution.
The brewing tension climaxes during a chaotic afterparty. Amid flirtations and heated conversations, Richard’s hostility spirals, leading to a brawl after he hurls a derogatory remark at Meredith. Amidst the pandemonium, a passionate tryst between Meredith and Oliver unfolds, setting off a storm of gossip. The subsequent morning unfolds with shocking revelation – Richard, bearing ghastly injuries, floats in the nearby water, surprisingly still alive.
Part 3 – Act 3
On a contemplative lakeside walk, former detective Colborne questions Oliver’s narrative style. Oliver elucidates their perspective as actors, where life and performance intertwine. This opens a window into the disarray following Richard’s accident, with the group concurring on a narrative of drunken misadventure. Oliver’s statement to the police mirrors the drama of a Shakespearean tragedy. The death’s aftermath is strained, with Meredith’s absence and Filippa’s call for unity underscoring a simmering tension.
Returning home, Oliver faces familial discord and financial distress, threatening his final semester at Dellecher. Securing financial aid, he confesses his affinity for his friends over his family, complicated by an unexpected visit from James. Back at Dellecher, he overhears a disturbing discussion about the ongoing investigation into Richard’s death, adding to his emotional turmoil. Further, his strained conversation with Meredith hints at cracks in their relationship.
While Oliver and Wren deliver successful speeches, their joy is short-lived due to Wren’s sudden collapse, throwing the group into panic. Amidst preparations for the Christmas masque, Oliver confronts Alexander about his risky cocaine use. The masque becomes a mirror for their personal dilemmas, echoing their experiences and exposing a complex web of jealousy and tension.
Part 4 – Act 4
The prologue captures a conversation between Colborne and Oliver, where Oliver confesses how the group lost their bearings, confusing their Shakespearean roles with their lives. The holiday period further exacerbates their tension. During Christmas, Oliver finds solace away from his quarrelsome family in Ohio with Meredith in New York. They share intimate moments and envision a future together, seemingly distancing Oliver from his feelings for James. Back at Dellecher, the group awaits their roles in King Lear. A shift in casting dynamics surprises them all, igniting a sense of unease.
The void left by Richard’s departure becomes evident as they immerse themselves in the play. A startling discovery of a bloody piece of fabric leads to an enlightening conversation between Colborne and Oliver about the allure of acting. After hiding the fabric, Oliver suffers a harsh blow from James during their scene practice, raising suspicions about James’ behavior. Despite the painful incident, he finds comfort in Meredith’s company, further complicating their relationships.
Tension escalates when Alexander is found unconscious, a result of an apparent overdose. This crisis leads Oliver to a primal scream in the woods, revealing his emotional turmoil. The following class, marred by Alexander’s absence, forces the remaining students to consult a counselor. The lack of passion in James and Meredith’s rehearsed kiss rattles Oliver. He seeks solace in Frederick’s class, dropping a cup handed to him in an emblematic moment of his escalating stress.
Part 5 – Act 5
The prologue delves into the complex relationship between Oliver and James, which Oliver struggles to define. As the set of King Lear takes shape, the group’s dynamics shift further with growing isolation and Alexander’s return post a failed suicide attempt. In a confusing mix of dreams and reality, Oliver grapples with feelings for both Meredith and James. King Lear opens to applause, but the subsequent cast party reveals the group’s growing anxieties. Oliver finds a disturbing item – a bloodied boat hook hidden in James’s mattress, linking James to Richard’s death.
Desperate, Oliver stashes the hook with the previously discovered bloody fabric, then rushes to perform in King Lear, acknowledging James’s awareness of his knowledge. Oliver’s plan to confront James is complicated by his conversation with Meredith, where he confesses his feelings and pleads her to stay away from James. James admits to having killed Richard in self-defense, spinning a tale of a heated encounter that culminated in Richard’s death.
Despite this revelation, the play concludes, and Colborne confronts James, but Oliver shockingly takes the blame. Arrested, Oliver narrates James’s story to the police as his own, earning a conviction of second-degree murder. The Epilogue brings closure to the story. Colborne fails to find satisfaction in Oliver’s story, who, in turn, mourns James’s suicide. The admission of his love for James to Meredith initiates a healing process. In a final twist, Oliver receives a cryptic note from James hinting at his possible survival, leaving Oliver in a restless search for answers.