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College students can be pretentious a-holes. I know, because I was one. I was a student of literature (see? Why couldn’t I just say “English major”?) instead of theater, like the group of friends in If We Were Villains, but the effect is the same. Throwing out obscure references in casual conversation, trying to out-intellectualize everyone else, making mundane observations in a way that is supposed to seem “deep”—21-year-old Taryn was guilty of all of that. There is a particular high that comes from eviscerating another student’s point with textual evidence, a sharp tone, and a haughty flip of one’s hair. I remember it well.

So yeah, the characters in this book are pretentious to the max. They attend an exclusive art school where students are cut from the theater program each year, leaving only a handful to survive to senior year. Oh, and they perform Shakespeare. ONLY Shakespeare. Because no other play ever written by anyone else in the history of the world is worthy of their attention, obvs. The seven friends/frenemies that make up the cast, if you will, quote Shakespeare constantly, even in their off-time, even when completely plastered. Like the characters they play onstage, they are larger than life, their flaws and foibles magnified, their romantic entanglements and betrayals explosive. While part of me was rolling my eyes at them, another part was salivating to see what crazy shit they were going to do to each other next.

Because crazy shit is a guarantee from the beginning. One of the seven died senior year, and another one of the seven went to jail for it. Now ten years have passed and he’s being released from prison, but the true story of what happened and why is…complicated. I couldn’t turn pages fast enough to unravel the mystery. And the book is peppered throughout with descriptions of performances they staged, which worked so well and brought the story so vividly to life. Especially when the actors go off-script. (Think about it—anything can happen onstage during a performance. You could physically hurt another actor, and they would have to choose between breaking character and ruining the show, or taking it stoically so the show can go on. I had never realized how vulnerable you are to the people you’re performing with! Yikes!! How did I survive all those high school musicals?)

I got a bit of whiplash from a couple of too-fast plot twists right at the end of the book, but overall, If We Were Villains was a super fun way to revisit my past. And it made me thankful I escaped my pompous college days without a brush with murder.

With regards to Flatiron Books and Goodreads for the advance copy, which I was tickled to win in a recent giveaway. On sale today, April 11!

Find it at your library!

When news broke last week of attacks in Beirut, Paris, and other cities around the world, as I always do, I turned to fiction to help make sense of the ongoing tragedy. Of course there isn’t any real sense to be found in the violent deaths of innocents; there never is. But suddenly my reading of The Kindness of Enemies took on a new urgency. Now more than ever, understanding Islam feels like an imperative, and more importantly, marking the distinction between its earnest practitioners and its extremists. Reading fiction is a consistent way in for me to cultures and experiences outside my own. It strips away the foreignness I feel as I read journalistic reports and use as a convenient excuse for my ignorance. I may easily dismiss “that group” as other, but I can’t do the same with “that character.” The specificity of fiction, though it may not represent truth in the same way a news article would, points me toward the larger, more fundamental truths of real, complicated, global life.

Leila Aboulela’s novel shines a light on the events of last week, and in so doing reveals a need for nuance in our approach to questions of religion and extremism. Natasha, a professor at a university in Scotland, bonds with a student and his mother over a weekend spent snowed in at their home, but when the student comes under investigation for terrorist activity, she has to reevaluate their every interaction. Was he harboring fantasies of violent jihad? Were there signs that she ignored because she liked him, respected his intellect? How much responsibility should she bear, if the claims of the police prove true?

Natasha's situation is further complicated by her own ambivalence toward her heritage. Her father is Sudanese, her mother Russian, which leaves Natasha in between two cultures, not feeling as if she belongs anywhere. She claims Islam culturally, but is not a practicing Muslim; her almost compulsive tendency to distance herself from her father's religion echoes throughout her narration.

Aboulela includes chapters that flash back to the mid-1800s, telling the story of Imam Shamil, Natasha's prized student's ancestor and the focus of her own academic research. Shamil led a group of resistance fighters against the Russian army in the Caucasian War. These chapters portray compelling, sympathetic characters on both sides of the conflict—both Shamil and his family, and the families of his enemies—eloquently underscoring the point that, in war, identifying sides as “good” or “bad” is not always a simple proposition, much as we might try to make it so.

I still have a lot more questions than answers about what happened last week. But now that I've read Aboulela's book, I've at least learned some of the right questions to ask.

With regards to Grove Atlantic and NetGalley for the advance copy. On sale 5 January 2016.