This book was described as being inspired by Frankenstein’s author, Fleetwood Mac, and the Manson murders, so I kind of had to read it because what kind of wild, attention-grabbing assortment is that?
Rachel Hawkin’s novel The Villa follows Emily, a writer who is going through a terrible time. Her soon-to-be-ex-husband is after her money in the divorce, she’s been dealing with mysterious ill health, and her next manuscript is very late. So when her friend Chess invites her to Italy for the summer, she jumps at the chance. They arrive at the villa that Chess has rented, where an infamous murder occurred in the 1970s. Back then, notorious rock star Noel Gordon gathered a few friends—up-and-coming musician Pierce, his girlfriend Mari, and Mari’s stepsister Lara—to the villa. Weeks of what seemed to be the usual sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll culminated in Pierce being beaten to death, as well as the production of two of the most influential works of art of the decade. The longer Emily spends at the villa, the more she starts to suspect that there was more to Pierce’s death than most people think. As she investigates further, though, tensions between her and Chess rise, and it could be that Pierce’s isn’t the only death that will occur at the villa.
This is one of the stranger Frankenstein-adjacent works I’ve read, but that’s not a bad thing. I think it was really cool to see, instead of a take on the plot of that famous novel, a take on the woman who wrote it and those who were in her life. The group that gathered at Villa Diodati in real life have obvious counterparts in this book, and it was fascinating to see the complex interpersonal relationships at play. Mari is especially strong (as she should be, being based on Mary Shelley), and I loved exploring her internal struggles with writing and with Pierce. It’s a tangled web between the two of them, even before Noel and Lara are thrown into the mix. I already knew a bit about the real life people, but I think this storyline would be compelling without former knowledge.
As for Emily, she’s a strong protagonist in the contemporary storyline. Her struggles are sympathetic, and you feel as intrigued as she is when she unearths more and more of the circumstances of Pierce’s murder. I think it was very clever how the two storylines intertwined.
All that aside, though, I think some of the aspects of Emily’s friendship with Chess left something to be desired for me. I didn’t trust Chess for most of the book, and there’s one thing that’s revealed part way through the book that I figured out much earlier than Emily. Granted, that might be because I was aware Emily was in a thriller, and she wasn’t aware, but still. More than that, the conclusion of that storyline felt a little rushed and abrupt. I wanted the pacing to not speed up, but it did, and I was left a little disoriented and had to reread a couple of scenes. I also don’t think there was enough closure regarding Emily’s illness. There ends up being some explanation, but it didn’t feel sufficient to me, considering I was sure it was somehow foreshadowing for something major. So that was a little bit of a letdown.
Finally—and this is incredibly minor in the grand scheme of things—I think this needed a different cover. Other than being in Italy, lemons have nothing to do with the story, from what I can tell! It’s not that it’s a bad looking cover, but it doesn’t quite match the tone of the story in my opinion. But as I said, that’s minor.
In the end, I really did enjoy The Villa. For one thing, the audiobook narrators are fantastic! Also, the references to Shelley’s time at Villa Diodati are pretty brilliant, and some of the scenes are truly gripping and eerie. The atmosphere of the book is excellent, and the bonds between characters are fascinatingly convoluted. I wouldn’t say that most of the characters are particularly likable, but I was also really intrigued to see what would happen with them. Emily and Mari, though, are the clear standouts. The ending is a bit rushed, but also a bit meta in a kind of fun way. And overall, this is a more than decent thriller!
The Villa is available now!