The Villa is Rachel Hawkins’ latest thriller. With it, she solidifies her reputation for intense and creative suspenseful stories with endings that are anything but happily ever afters. She leaves those endings for her romances.
Set in the beautiful Italian countryside, The Villa is not all sunshine and full wine glasses. Flipping back and forth between Emily’s current-day story and Mari’s retelling of the 1974 events, you quickly realize that this is one setting that does not match the tension and violence within the house. We know from the outset that Villa Aestas witnessed a murder, so none of this should be a surprise. What sticks with you is the opening sentence, “Houses remembers,” as you are left wondering if past events linger and influence future events.
Mari and Emily are on similar paths when they step inside the villa, even though they are at different points in their lives. The similarities don’t just end with the fact that they are both writers. Both struggle with complicated feelings towards the other female in the house, stepsister for Mari and longtime best friend for Emily. As if that isn’t enough, they find themselves finding clarity regarding their relationships with significant others.
What makes The Villa special is not just discovering what happened in the villa in 1974. It also shows how each woman grows a bit stronger each time we return to their narrative. Watching Emily confront her feelings towards her friend and defend herself when Chess becomes too condescending is cathartic and enjoyable. Seeing Mari realize the truth of her relationship with Pierce evokes a similar sense of peace. Their excitement about their burgeoning novels becomes a point of pride. You find yourself rooting for them to obtain that mysterious happily ever after, even as you know how Mari’s story ends.
The suspense in The Villa comes in the build-up to Mari’s story of the 1974 murder. In addition, from the opening sentence, Ms. Hawkins establishes that the decades-long friendship between Chess and Emily may have an endpoint. Any interaction between the two is fraught with tension, thanks to knowing Emily’s honest thoughts about her friend. This tension doesn’t just drive the plot, though. It also raises an interesting question about whether the word hate belongs in any description of friendship.
Among Ms. Hawkins’ three suspense novels, I rank The Villa a strong second behind The Wife Upstairs. I love how she intertwines Mari’s and Emily’s stories; I found myself loathe to stop reading whenever real life called. Moreover, I find the ending to be rather chilling. Many what-ifs come to mind once you finish, and I can only guess that was Ms. Hawkins’ intent. Between the absorbing nature of the story itself and the twisty ending, The Villa will be the first must-read of 2023.