book review: The Villa by Rachel Hawkins
Overview: Part Fleetwood Mac retelling with more murder and an Italian twist; part modern day story of frenemies and writers block, there's multitudes in the happenings at Villa Aestas and within this book. Chess and Emily embark on an Italian vacation in the modern day with Chess using her piles of self help guru money to rent out a legendary villa and site of a famous murder. These childhood friends are hoping to get in a lot of writing and rekindle their dying friendship by spending the summer together. At the same time, Emily, a mystery writer, is interested to dive into the murder of an up and coming singer that happened in the '70s and lead to a very famous album and horror novel. Told in parallel narratives of the summer long ago and the summer in the present, this book is full of twists and turns that dig into the idiosyncrasies of human nature. Overall: 4
Characters: 4 All of the characters are quite interesting portraits that contain many layers. Emily is our main point of view character anchoring us in the present day. She's stalled out on her cozy mystery series and in the middle of a contentious divorce when she leaves for Italy. Throughout the book, she has a discerning eye for clues in her own life, but she does miss some major red flags right in front of her about her longtime friend. Emily is relatable and the perfect character to guide us through the twists and turns in her own story and in the story she's uncovering about the murder at the Villa long ago.
Chess is our second main character in the present, and she always seems just a little off. Her glossy Gwyneth Paltrow exterior is off-putting and weird to Emily from the start, and it's very clearly hiding some problems she doesn't want to admit to beneath the surface. Emily and Chess both melt into the familiarity of knowing someone from decades while they strain against how different they've become and the secrets and ulterior motives that mean things can never truly be just like high school. While this is a friendship, this is also an exploration of what happens when childhood friendships hold on too long.
The other half of the book is devoted to uncovering what really happened in the '70s through Mari's point of view. She's the girlfriend of the murder victim and went on to become a highly successful horror novelist after the fact. It's a bit harder to connect with the characters in the past timeline because their story is told in third person, but they have quite a bit of nuance none the less. There's the two groupie girls who are step sisters, the wanna-be rockstar, the real rockstar that's burnt out, and the friend/dealer/lover that sets the stage for everything to go up in flames as relationships get messy, and though the case came with a conviction of the murderer, nothing about that time feels settled. They make fascinating foils to Chess and Emily, and, at times, they even receive more development as the characters are all entwined on so many different levels.
Plot: 4 The book succeeds in its dual plot because I never found myself wishing that only one part of the story was focused on as I read. I was never anxious to get back to the '70s or the present and enjoyed them both in equal measure. The plot beats of both stories were also well timed to reveal something that coincided with the other narrative at the perfect time, and they served to really enrich one another. At the beginning, before Emily sets out on learning more about the mystery, these flashbacks lay the groundwork for fully understanding what's to come and later they unfold in step with what Emily learns to add more depth and color. While it's never scary or gory, there is enough suspense that I finished reading the book in two days and was impressed by the plot twists (some that I predicted and some that I didn't). It strikes an interesting balance of being a book where a lot happens, and it appears plot driven on the surface, but at the same time, it's main takeaway is exploring how multifaceted and often twisted that people can be and how relationships are never quite what they appear on the surface, even to those in them.
Writing: 4 I'd read Rachel Hawkins's two YA books in the past about modern royals, so I wasn't sure what to expect in the adult mystery genre (though that seems to be what she predominately writes). She has a keen mastery on character, pacing, and storytelling, and she pulls off the trope of writing about writers and having parts of the characters' books be in the narrative we read well. It felt relatable and enlightening and like an interesting peak behind the curtain instead of awkward and forced like it can sometimes come across. The book also really effortlessly blends not just the two timelines but other media bits within chapters like true crime articles, brief email exchanges, and other bits of flavor that grow the story beyond the narratives that the characters want to spin.
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