A broken marriage, recovering health, and writer’s block. Emily has known better days. When her best friend of decades, Chess, coaxes her to take a vacation to Italy with her, Emily gives in.
Villa Aestas has a dark history and is also the inspiration for one of the best horror novels written. As Emily’s interest grows in the incidents of the past, she discovers just why Chess seems to be hiding something from her.
The Villa is hands down the best book I’ve read by Rachel Hawkins. It is significantly better than Reckless Girls and even packs much more intrigue than The Wife Upstairs.
It has a multi-layered plot that is propelled by Emily’s desire to delve into the mystery of the villa and write a great true-crime novel. I also think she was motivated by Chess’ success, which is depicted in contrast to Emily’s own not-as-glamourous writing career.
So the chapters alternate between:
- Emily and Chess in Italy
- Mari, her stepsister Lara and three others staying at the villa in 1974, and a murder takes place
- Scenes from the horror novel that Mari writes.
As you can see, The Villa is a book full of writers who are writing books. I love that!
Out of the 3-ish storylines woven together, I liked reading the one set in 1974 with the group of friends the most. The dynamics between Mari, Lara, Pierce, Noel, and Johnnie are fraught with tension.
Actually, most of the friendships in this book are burdened by secrets, jealousy, and power struggles. It’s something I’ve noticed before… many of Rachel Hawkins’ works feature toxic relationships.
So, don’t expect to find characters who are entirely likeable. I, for one, could not understand why Emily and Chess considered each other best friends.
I was thoroughly engrossed in this mystery novel because of how the author lays bare their vices and brings out the worst in them to fuel this nefarious story. Plus, the narrative structure is great!
There are many parallels you can draw in the novel. Emily and Mari both seemed to have borne the brunt of not being good judges of character. They’re writers looking for inspiration and find it in external sources. They have been manipulated by people they trusted.
I had a theory about why Emily was unwell, but that didn’t seem to be the case. The explanation we are given wasn’t convincing at all.
I like that Rachel Hawkins uses descriptive writing to paint a picture of Villa Aestas. While the location does add to the ambience of the story, it is the plot that takes the lead.
The ending was unexpected. I have mixed feelings about the way one of the storylines is concluded.
On the whole, The Villa surpassed my expectations. It is absolutely worth the read if you’re looking for a mystery novel set in a foreign country with a cast full of morally grey characters.
Note – I received an ALC of this book from Libro.fm in exchange for an honest review.