Thriller Thursday Audio: The Villa by Rachel Hawkins
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Thriller, Suspense
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Macmillan Audio (January 3, 2023)
Length: 7 hours 57 minutes
Author Information: Website
Narrators: Julia Whelan, Kimberly M. Wetherell, Shiromi Arserio
The Villa was a great if flawed thriller—perhaps a little convoluted to start, but then came together in the end in a way that makes me wonder if I might be selling it short. What I do know for certain is that there are multiple layers and meanings to the story, but in terms of how well they are communicated, I’m not so sure.
First, we have to acknowledge the two parts to this book. One focuses on a pair of stepsisters in 1974, while the other follows two best friends in the present. Both timelines are connected by a luxurious Italian villa in sun-soaked Tuscany, but belying its gorgeous façade is a history of violence. In the 1974 timeline, it is revealed how the property was rented by a group of artists that summer, only to wind up with one of them brutally murdered. In the present, the villa has since been converted into a high-end holiday home, and a struggling author has come to stay hoping for inspiration but instead finds its secrets to be much more intriguing.
Back in the early 70s, rock star Noel Gordon was kind of a big deal. So when her stepsister Lara was invited to hang out with him in Villa Rosato for the summer, Mari couldn’t have been more excited to tag along with her boyfriend Pierce Sheldon, who was also a musician who could really use this opportunity to launch his career. In the end though, it was the women whose lives really took off by the end of that summer, which spawned two well-known modern classics. Mari wrote her masterpiece Lilith Rising, regarded to be one of the greatest horror novels of all time, and Lara went on to compose Aestas, her debut album which went platinum. Poor Pierce Sheldon, however, ended up dead. A fifth occupant at the house that summer, Noel’s drug dealer Johnnie, was convicted for killing him, but the case, known throughout the world as the Villa Rosato Horror, has remained a fascination for true crime enthusiasts ever since.
In the present, Emily is a recently divorced novelist stuck on delivering the latest volume of her cozy mystery series which she really needs to finish in order to pay the bills. In contrast, her best friend Chess, a successful self-help author with a massive social media following, doesn’t seem to have any of those problems. To help out Emily, Chess suggests a summer getaway to an Italian villa where both of them can relax and focus on writing. But Emily soon discovers that where they are staying is none other than the site of the Villa Rosato Horror, and that one of its most famous guests, the celebrated horror novelist Mari Godwick, may have left some clues behind as to what really happened that notorious summer.
That’s a lot to unpack in The Villa, but once you realize author Rachel Hawkins was inspired by Fleetwood Mac, the Manson murders, and even by the fact that the idea for Frankenstein was conceived on a rainy afternoon in an Genevan castle where Mary Shelley was staying with her husband poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and their friend Lord Byron, then the pieces start falling into place. I also that think for this reason, like many other readers, I prefer the 1970s storyline a lot more, since that’s where most of the inspiration for this novel came into play. Plus, it’s got sex, drugs, and rock and roll—what more could you ask for?
But with this in mind, the present storyline appears to be supportive, with Emily’s main role being to investigate and uncover the truth, while the conflicts involving her writer’s block, her messy divorce, etc. become almost secondary. That said, I liked how Emily’s unusual “frenemy” dynamic cleverly reflected the competitive nature and bitter jealousies between the sisters Mari and Lara, and no doubt Hawkins had intended for readers to draw certain parallels and comparisons to their sibling rivalry.
Was The Villa meant to be more of a creative retelling about Mary Shelley’s writing of Frankenstein? Hawkins even makes allusions to the nightmare to which Shelley attributed her inspiration. But clearly there are also many questions in both the 1970s and present timelines that are floated but don’t seem to have any resolution by the end. Or maybe I’m just missing something? I want to say this is a very clever book, because it’s one made for theorizing and discussing into the night, but at the same time, I’m left feeling like I’m stumbling around in the dark.
Overall, I can’t help but wonder if the author actually had a plan or I’m just overthinking it, and in the end, The Villa is just another one of your typical murder mystery thrillers featuring a creepy old mansion but dressed up in a different package. Certainly the present timeline had some of these vibes, especially since the ending ultimately felt tacked on, with many loose threads and a conclusion that left me unconvinced of the characters’ motives or reasoning. However, I just can’t say enough good things about the 1970s timeline, which was definitely the novel’s foundation and highlight. This is one of those reviews where I wish I could write about everything I thought without having to worry about spoilers because I have many ideas and theories I want to share, and if you end up reading The Villa, I would love to discuss!