The Villa isn’t author Rachel Hawkins’s first fiercely feminist thriller—her The Wife Upstairs puts a modern-day spin on Jane Eyre and last year’s Reckless Girls is the first book I recommend to anyone who tells me that they’re going through Yellowjackets withdrawal while we wait for the show’s second season. But she’s bested them both with her latest novel, The Villa, a Gothic thriller that is somehow both everything you think it will be—and absolutely nothing you expect.
A wildly creative story that combines a 1970s rock and roll reimagining of the famous summer at Villa Dodati in 1814 that gave birth to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a competitive modern-day summer writing retreat rife with professional jealousies, and a deft exploration of the uncomfortable truths about the way our society views female artists of all stripes, The Villa is a rare thriller with something substantial to say—about the complexity of female friendships, how our society consumes true crime stories, and more. The sort of book that’s easy to sit down with and suddenly find yourself finishing within a single sitting, Hawkins’ tale is propulsively paced and incredibly addictive. As it deftly shifts between timelines, The Villa tells a story of history repeating itself, of women struggling to be heard as partners and artists, and the toll that the act of creating art can take on those who are making it.
Told across dual timelines set at the same luxurious estate in Italy, The Villa initially follows the story of Emily Sheridan, author of a popular cozy series of mysteries who has had an exceptionally bad year. Struggling through a rough divorce, a contentious battle over her royalties, and writer’s block on her next (already overdue) novel, she jumps at the chance to get away from it all with her childhood BFF, the popular self-help author, and Instagram influencer Chess Chandler, invites her on a writing retreat for the summer, at a gorgeous villa in Italy. The sun-drenched location not only seems like a perfect spot for them to write, but it also happens to be the location of a famous 1970s murder, where a largely unknown up-and-coming musician was killed.
The novel’s second thread follows the story of the occupants of the villa during that tragic summer—-Mari Godwick, a young woman who writes a groundbreaking work of horror during her stay at the house; her talented musician boyfriend, Pierce Sheldon, who is married to someone else; famous rocker Noel Gordon, Mari’s sister, Lara, who will go on to pen one of the greatest albums of all time and name it after the house she spent that fateful summer in; and Johnnie. The dynamics between this group are as messy as those you might expect to see between any foursome in the 1970s and as they do drugs and try to make art, the lines, relationships, and jealousies between all of them get blurrier.
Much of the story centers around Mari and Lara’s relationship, and the bond between these two 1970s sisters women mirrors many of the issues we see in the modern-day plot between Emily and Chess: deep love and shared history, but also mistrust, jealousy, and an uncomfortable sense of competition, that if by some miracle a woman is to be successful there can only ever be one. And as Emily digs further into the story of what really happened at the villa in 1974, she becomes inspired to write about it, a shift that almost immediately complicates the dynamic between her and Chess, who’s suddenly resentful of the ease with which her supposed friend seems to be redirecting her authorial energy. A torrent of betrayals and revelations follow—in both timelines—building to two parallel conclusions that encourage us to ask what price we might be willing to pay for freedom, or the chance to create a piece of great art.
Through deft parallels and similar framing of critical scenes, Hawkins winds the two timelines around and through each other, making the entire novel feel like a single piece, despite the fact that its disparate plots never technically intersect with one another outside of Google searches, the diary that Emily finds on the estate, and the art that both Mari and Lara leave behind. It’s a tremendously well-put-together tale and the story builds to a conclusion that feels both tragic, triumphant, and inevitable.
The Villa is available now.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.