Inspired by infamous rock band Fleetwood Mac and historical events like the Manson murders and Lord Byron’s infamous summer at a Lake Geneva castle with Percy and Mary Shelley, Rachel Hawkins’ The Villa may just be 2023’s ultimate gothic novel. The novel follows the tumultuous personal and professional life of cozy mystery writer Emily Sheridan and her successful life-coach-of-a-best-friend Chess. The two have been friends since childhood, and when Chess proposes a girls-only trip to Italy, Emily embraces the opportunity to restart her personal and professional life. However, the breathtaking villa where Chess and Emily are spending six glorious weeks holds dark secrets surrounding the summer of 1974 when rock star Noel Gordon, up-and-coming rock star-wannabe Pierce, Pierce’s girlfriend Mari, and Mari’s stepsister Lara embark on what will become a cruel summer for everyone at the villa.
The nuances of Emily and Chess’ lifelong friendship initially draw readers into The Villa’s pages. As Emily navigates a financially brutal divorce and struggles with debilitating writer’s block, Chess’ writing and professional career is one worth envying: endless book deals, Oprah appearances, and financial success that leaves Chess oozing cash and fame. Readers sense Emily’s jealousy, even though Emily’s lack of self-awareness inhibits her from fully admitting it. Thus, at first, readers may initially think that The Villa is another friendship-gone-wrong murder story, but it’s not.
Paralleling Emily and Chess’ friendship and professional rivalry is the backstory of Mari and Lara, two young women caught up in the tangled yarn ball of the 1970s rock star life. Mari dates Pierce, a talented up-and-coming English musician whose own desires and passions overshadow Mari’s artistic and creative endeavors. Complicating their relationship is Mari’s stepsister, Lara, whose ultimate goal — it seems — is to consistently outshine Mari. Hawkins depicts the parallels between Emily and Chess’ relationship and Mari and Lara’s with a quiet brilliance. The creative and social tensions plaguing each pair quietly unfold, which adds to the novel’s allure.
Supplementing the novel’s mystique is Emily’s role in discovering the truth behind the horrific summer of 1974, which left one member of Noel Gordon’s party dead and the survivors scarred for life. To some, Emily might seem like a has-been who’s trying to keep her professional life together by writing one more installment to her cozy mystery series. However, she slowly transforms into a likable sleuth, one who, despite not achieving Chess’ grandiose level of success, outshines her best friend. Hawkins also portrays Emily as the most human of the two — another of Emily’s endearing qualities. She is emotionally battered from her soon-to-be-ex-husband’s relentless pursuit of his share of Emily’s meager wealth, and she is physically recovering from a mysterious months-long illness. The Villa, after all, is her story: Emily is the narrator in the novel’s sections set in the present.
Nonetheless, one can’t talk about The Villa without also noting its alternating structure which contributes to the novel’s mystique. While Emily narrates the novel’s contemporary sections, which are set in 2023, the historical sections — set in 1974 — are told via an objective speaker focused on Mari’s thoughts, actions, and feelings. The novel’s structure intricately weaves the past with the present so that at times the two blur almost unnoticeably, especially as Emily begins uncovering the villa’s past and the truth about the events which transpired in 1974.
While The Villa is foremost a suspenseful gothic novel, it’s also an examination of the modern publishing industry, a writer’s marketability, and each writer’s individual writing and professional process. For readers working in the publishing industry, the novel’s take on these matters — especially in light of a federal court’s rejection of Penguin’s purchase of Simon & Schuster — will seem humorous. At these points, too, readers gain more empathy for Emily. Emily is the intellectually and philosophically deeper character than Chess, whose self-help writings (what little of them readers see) are vapid and trivial. However, Chess’ books sell to mainstream audiences, while Emily’s cozy mystery series experiences only moderate success. Implicitly, the novel comments about agent access and branding, both of which lead Chess to great marketing heights, while Emily relies on a small-time agent who encourages Emily to simply stay the course in the cozy mystery genre rather than pursuing other creative endeavors.
Every now and then, a gripping gothic thriller so enthralling comes along and pushes readers back into their seats and commands “No, another page.” The Villa is such a novel. It’s enticing and psychologically gripping, an intellectual and emotional investment. Those readers who appreciate true crime with a smattering of rock and roll history will enjoy The Villa, while readers looking for a new twist on the gothic and mystery genres will appreciate the ghostly twists and turns the book takes. Its central message is about humanity and the lengths individual may go to protect themselves — and their art.
St. Martin’s Press
Published January 3, 2023