In a surprising bit of synchronicity, I read two great novels recently that both referenced Shakespeare—which is why the quote from Macbeth for this post’s title. Also, because there is a lot of wicked in both these novels. In New Boy, Tracy Chevalier adapts the very grown-up themes of Othello to 1970s elementary school. Then M.L. Rio uses Shakespeare’s plays as the core of her mystery, If We Were Villains. Set at an alternative college of the arts, seven theater majors are studying to become Shakespearean actors. When one of them dies there are consequences for all of them.
If the weight of Shakespeare makes you nervous, let go of that fear. Both of these novels were the epitome of tension and well-constructed plot. Which is also true of Shakespeare’s work if you don’t let yourself get too hung up on the language (sorry, that’s the English major geek in me coming out). So, forget your college Literature class trauma and dive in.
New Boy (Hogarth Shakespeare) by Tracy Chevalier
Published by Hogarth
Publication date: May 11th 2017
By choosing elementary school as her setting for New Boy Chevalier takes a combustible point in life and puts it in a Shakespearean play of high drama about love and jealousy. She goes even further with this group of suburban Washington D.C. eleven-year-olds when she makes the new boy, Osei, a black transfer student. Suddenly, you have the age where childhood is starting to be infiltrated with grown-up attitudes. It’s also the 1970s and most of the children have not been around a person of color so the prejudice and ignorance runs strong. For Osei the difficulties of being new and black are eased when he is paired off with another student to guide him through his new schedule. She’s Dee and she’s the prettiest and most popular girl at school. Of course, this is Othello, so Dee’s interest in Osei does not end well.
Chevalier is seamless in the atmosphere she creates in New Boy. She stays true to Shakespeare’s dramatics, but in setting them in 20th century America makes them recognizable to the modern reader. For children of the 70s it’s even better, with nostalgia-inducing pop culture markers, from Herbal Essence shampoo, the Jackson Five and Archie comic books, to, Partridge Family lunch boxes. That this nostalgic high is shot through with the stomach clenching terror of navigating a new school’s classroom, recess and cafeteria politics feels almost sadistic on Chevalier’s part, but is only a job well-done by a clever author. In only one day of school and less than 250 pages, she makes New Boy a nuanced exploration of jealousy and the ever-more relevant themes of racism and lies.
If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio
Published by Flatiron Books
Publication date: April 11th 2017
Actors are by nature volatile—alchemic creatures composed of incendiary elements, emotion and ego and envy. Heat them up, stir them together, and sometimes you get gold. Sometimes disaster.
Somehow, despite being about college and reading, If We Were Villains slipped under my radar. It took rave reviews from trusted bloggers, Novel Visits and Sarah’s Book Shelves to make me scramble for this book, but I’m really glad I did. Oliver, James, Richard, Alexander, Meredith, Filippa and Wren are the friends and when the novel opens, Oliver is being released from prison after serving ten years for the murder of one of the others. Who he killed is not the mystery but everything else is.
If We Were Villains is Rio’s debut, but she writes with assurance about the intricacies of theater acting and the demands of the training that goes into the profession. This could be due to being an actor, but that does not explain away how well she maneuvers what could be a cumbersome cast and plot. She even incorporates dialogue from the plays the characters are studying into their conversations. But don’t worry! As much as I was delighted to read the lines of some of Shakespeare’s plays again, they are not critical to the plot or its tension—they’re an enhancement. Instead, it is how Rio strains the bonds of friendship with ambition, love and coming-of-age that makes If We Were Villains mesmerizing reading.
Murder’s as near to lust as flame to smoke. -Pericles
Sarah's Book Shelves says
New Boy sounds really good! And I definitely used to use Herbal Essences shampoo…haha! But I must have been way behind the times b/c I was using it in the 80’s.
Thanks for linking to me 🙂
No, you were on the cutting edge for you peers! They’ve actually re-released it but I haven’t smelled it. It will be a total time bomb!
Susie | Novel Visits says
Love this double review. I’d actually looked at New Boy a few times, but have grown a little weary of the Shakespeare retellings. Your thoughts on the book have me reconsidering.
I’m so glad you like If We Were Villains. It’s definitely one of my favorites so far this year.
If I didn’t mention Othello, it’s not obvious so you might want to give it a try. I appreciated how easily she made the brutality of playground politics fit into a Shakespearean dram of love and jealousy.
So glad you liked the Rio book, I plan to get to it. They compared it to Tartt’s Secret History; is it similar or on par with that??
It is and actually, I liked it better. The group in Secret History never felt like true friends to me. This group does.
Eva @ The Paperback Princess says
Ohhh I have a copy of New Boy in my stack. I’m honestly shocked at how different our covers are! I’m glad you loved it – I’ve been a bit apprehensive of this one.
If We Were Villains sounds really good too! You seem to be on a reading upswing!
How funny that two recent books echoed Shakespeare. Are you going to keep the theme going and tune into Still Star Crossed tonight? I can’t decide if I want to!
I don’t even know what that is! *runs off to look*
Save New Boy for another time and read The Heirs. I’m working that one like a missionary- I want everyone converted!