I don’t know what Rachel Hawkins puts into her books, but I am obsessed. The Villa, her latest release, is in the same vein as her earlier suspense novels—The Wife Upstairs and Reckless Girls—but with an edge and greater sense of cohesion that shows growth. I devoured the entire book in a day. I was gripped by the narrative, but it’s the fast-pace and easy readability that makes Hawkins’ prose work. She’s still writing familiar genre tropes but throwing in modern sensibilities and Gothic allusions to create something that feels new yet familiar.
The Villa is a mash of genres. It’s part epistolary, told through various documents like song lyrics, newspaper articles, podcast interviews, and book excerpts. It’s part meta true crime narrative as two writers become enamored with the same subject. It’s part self-help book as characters learn to set aside negativities for a greater benefit. Lastly, it’s a fictionalized history of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. All of these elements surprisingly come together because of the overarching narrative, the characters’ motivations, and that all elusive idea of “the muse.”
Emily, a writer of cozy mysteries recovering from a mysterious illness and an ongoing divorce, is whisked away to Italy by her childhood best friend. In the years since high school, Chess has become a best-selling self-help guru who helps women find their paths. Initially, the idea behind the trip is time spent writing and bonding, but it begins to evolve when Emily finds inspiration in an old murder at the villa. The more obsessed she becomes with the past and her writing, the more her relationship with Chess deteriorates.
In the 70s, a group of bohemians descends on the villa to find inspiration. Although the main intention is for rock star Noel Gordon and newcomer Pierce to write music together, plans go awry thanks to miserable weather, the sweet temptation of drugs, and Noel’s lackadaisical attitude. Mari, Pierce’s girlfriend, and Lara, her sister, are along for the ride but find their own inspirations from that summer. Not everyone will survive this stay, and the brilliant but bloody consequences follow those who live like a curse.
One of the reasons I wanted to read this book is because—from the description—it’s clear that Hawkins is fictionalizing one of the most famous and artistic gatherings in creative history. In 1816, Lord Byron and Claire Clairmont invited Mary Wollstonecraft, Percy Shelley, and John Polidori to a villa in Switzerland. Kept inside by bad weather, they challenged each other to write scary stories. This would lead to Frankenstein and The Vampyre, birthing a modern Romantic Gothic. As known for its literary legacy, this gathering was also rife with historical affairs, entanglements, and drama. Hawkins, then, takes the historical, moves it into the glory days of folk rock and bohemian communal living, and adds murder for spice.
Too many books to name, especially horror, depend on that narrative of “the artist who has lost their muse.” Here, Emily is struggling to write the tenth book in her cozy mystery series because the love interest was based on her ex-husband. Due to her illness, she’s way past deadline and her desperation to write bleeds off the page. Her excitement at this new idea—a darker story than she usually writes—is easy to catch. While the perspective and her narrative leaves room for disbelief in the cause of her illness, I can say I totally believed it. I’ve been there, and it sucks when only hindsight reveals the truth.
The relationship between Emily and Chess is so interesting. They have childhood memories and bonds that have lasted them over twenty years, but their different levels and definitions of success seem to continually drive a wedge between them. Chess, whose real name is Jessica, is the perfect picture of influencer fame a la Gwyneth Paltrow. The fact they’re both writers, in different genres, helps them understand each other on other levels and that push and pull continues throughout the book. Chess is the kind of character you want to dislike, but somehow can’t. She glows.
Mari, then, as homage to Mary Shelley, works on many different levels. The narrative really emphasizes how young she was when all this had happened, but also how aged she was by her traumatic experiences. The guilt over her mother’s death, her relationship with her father, and the weight of expectations are things Mari carries with her onto the trip. Her relationship with Pierce, a married man, seems idyllic and the thing of Romance, but their different goals and expectations creates drama. Her relationship with her stepsister, Lara, ebbs and flows but there’s a strong heart there at the center.
The setting is sun-soaked gorgeousness or stormy atmospheric haunt. I can easily picture a Nancy Meyers-esque kitchen with food prepared by a local woman. Light dancing off the pool, where Emily and Chess read on the loungers. The small, candlelit sitting room where they can listen to Lara’s classic album and find hidden meanings in the lyrics. The room full of books left by travelers past. It’s a setting where we get to see the Airbnb present and the more rundown past, where the lack of glamour inspires Mari to write a horror novel. If this setting does actually exist, it’s a place I’d love to visit.
As I’ve mentioned, the plot is fast-paced even when the structure jumps between past and present. At its heart, this book is a mystery—what really happened in July 1974? As with all mysteries, we find clues in different places—Mari’s book, Lara’s music, the nearby town—but Hawkins leaves a few red herrings to keep us guessing right till the end. In a later chapter, I even had one of those “I knew it!” moments, only to be proven wrong a page later. The ending is taut and holds its suspense off the page. Some readers may not find full satisfaction, but I enjoyed how it made me rethink what I knew and haunted my thoughts.
Now, if you’ve read other books by Hawkins, then you may find the plotting and pace a bit too similar to the others. The author has her tells in terms of how the overarching story is going to move, what will be revealed and when, and the kinds of characters she portrays. It feels a bit like a brand, but it’s an enjoyable one for me. I’ll never complain about being entertained. I also like how Hawkins portrays wealth and acknowledges it. Usually, the main character is someone who doesn’t have much or comes from a troubled background, but their access and perspective on the life of luxury feels personable and relatable. We all want what we shouldn’t have.
The Villa portrays writers as creatures of greed, and it’s not wrong. We want time to write, even at the expense of her our personal lives. We want to write the next bestseller or something that will pay the bills. We want to ‘own’ our ideas in a way capitalism doesn’t fully allow. It’s also about friendship that is sometimes sisterhood, men who take advantage of women in various ways, and the escapism of art. If you’re looking to begin the year with murder, mystery, and muses then retreat into the pages of The Villa.
This review is for an ARC copy received from St. Martin’s Press. Thank you for the opportunity to read and review this work. The Villa is available as of January 3, 2023.
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