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The Folger Spotlight

Words, Words, Words: 'If We Were Villains' by M. L. Rio

The Folger’s virtual book club, Words, Words, Words continues on Thursday, April 7 with a discussion of If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio. To get ready for the conversation, we’ve compiled some introductory information on this twisty thriller about Shakespeare students at an exclusive arts conservatory.

What is If We Were Villains about?

On the day Oliver Marks is released from jail, the man who put him there is waiting at the door. Detective Colborne wants to know the truth, and after ten years, Oliver is finally ready to tell it.

A decade ago: Oliver is one of seven young Shakespearean actors at Dellecher Classical Conservatory, a place of keen ambition and fierce competition. In this secluded world of firelight and leather-bound books, Oliver and his friends play the same roles onstage and off: hero, villain, tyrant, temptress, ingénue, extras.

But in their fourth and final year, good-natured rivalries turn ugly, and on opening night real violence invades the students’ world of make-believe. In the morning, the fourth-years find themselves facing their very own tragedy, and their greatest acting challenge yet: convincing the police, each other, and themselves that they are innocent.

Critical Reception

“Rio’s model couldn’t be clearer: “The Secret History,” by Donna Tartt. But this is not that eerie, half-mad novel; it’s too nerdily good-natured, and too nerdily (and winningly) in love with Shakespeare. Every page is scattered with his words, which the students toss at one another as easily and endlessly as a shared second language. There’s a kind of elation in seeing both famous and obscure phrases from the plays plucked and resituated, the effect first-rate — distancing, salutary.”--The New York Times

“This novel about obsession at the conservatory will thoroughly obsess you.”—Kirkus Reviews

“. . . a solid mystery that keeps the pages turning”—Publisher’s Weekly

Why did we pick this book?

The Folger Shakespeare Library’s collection explores not only Shakespeare’s life and works, but also the plays’ historical context, source material, critical and performance histories, and the ways in which they inspire and are adapted by contemporary novelists.

If We Were Villains takes place at a fictional arts conservatory where theater students exclusively study Shakespeare during their four years of study. As the plot unfolds, readers are given a glimpse into the theatrical process of staging Shakespeare’s plays and the practice of textual analysis. Additionally, the students themselves often express themselves through Shakespearean quotations, offering opportunities to explore the language of the plays as a means of expression.

Content Transparency

Content Transparency: This book contains adult material, including forms of violence/self-harm, scenes of emotional intensity, offensive language, and substance abuse. We have provided additional context on our website.

About the author: M. L. Rio
From her website

M. L. Rio was born in Miami and raised in North Carolina by parents from California, and has never known how to answer the question, “Where are you from?” Her writing career began in elementary school with Reading Rainbow’s Young Writers and Illustrators Contest and a story about a girl with a pet dragon and the problem of how to hide it from her parents. She picked up a pen to write her first novel at the much more judicious age of twelve. Half a dozen ‘drawer novels’ later, she is represented by Arielle Datz of Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency, Inc. Her debut novel, If We Were Villains, was published by Flatiron Books in 2017, and has since become an international bestseller, published in ten countries and six languages. Her music writing is published in The Vinyl District.

In addition to her work as a writer, she is a recovering actor turned academic. She holds an MA in Shakespeare studies from King’s College London and Shakespeare’s Globe, and is currently pursuing her PhD in early modern English literature at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her research explores representations of madness and mood disorder on the early modern stage. She lives in Washington, D. C. with too many books, too many records, and a mutt called Marlowe.

Meet our Bookshop Partner: Lost City Books

Lost City Books used New RareThis month, we are excited to partner once again with Lost City Books, an independent bookstore in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington DC, offering used, new, and rare book selections as part of DC’s thriving book-loving community.

Owned by Adam, a veteran and dog-lover, a long-time resident of DC, and an enthusiastic disseminator of books. Our small team is a collection of some of DC’s coolest kids: artists, educators, musicians, writers, and—of course—avid readers all coming together to create this unique environment.

Order online, by phone (202.232.4774), or come in person and browse the shelves. Front door pickup and shipping options are available. For questions, email

Learn more at

Related Events: Virtually Everything! featuring author M. L. Rio.

Wednesday, April 13, 5:30 pm ET
Live on Zoom | Exclusive for Folger Members

Members of the Folger Shakespeare Library are invited to exclusive programs, including Virtually Everything!, Folger Director Michael Witmore’s monthly, smart, joyful interview series about… well, everything! Previous guests on the program include authors Deborah Harkness and Alexandra Petri. On April 13, watch Mike’s conversation with M. L. Rio, author of If We Were Villains.

Folger members will automatically receive access to this exclusive event. You can become a member by registering through our website. We hope to see you there…and don’t forget to bring your questions!

Make a plan to join us on Thursday, April 7 to discuss If We Were Villains. Visit our website to register and stay tuned for additional Folger resources to enrich the conversation.

Members will automatically receive an invitation to Virtually Everything! on April 13, Folger Director Michael Witmore’s interview series with guest author M. L. Rio. Become a member today!

We would like to thank the following organizations for their generous support of this program: