‘The Villa’ by Rachel Hawkins: A layered Gothic mystery full of love, loss, and murder

Our The Villa book review begs you to pick up Rachel Hawkins’ next suspense novel, which contains a mystery spanning generations.

The Villa by Rachel Hawkins was the first book I read in 2023, and I’m mad about it—because how am I going to top this masterpiece? Can anything live up to the layers of mystery and intrigue splashed across the page in ink and blood? I just know I’ll spend the rest of my year comparing every single book to this one right here.

I’ve only read one other book by Rachel Hawkins—Reckless Girls—but that was enough to make me keep an eye out for her next title. She’s written in various genres, including romance and fantasy, and for middle grade, young adult, and adult audiences. But her Gothic suspense novels are what truly capture my imagination, and after reading The Villa, I know I need to go back and read The Wife Upstairs just to round it all out.

The Villa is a complex story, told across generations, but generally takes place in a single setting—a beautiful house in Italy. We start off with Chess, a self-help guru who’s definitely not hurting for money, and her (kind of) best friend Emily, whose life has taken a downturn thanks to her cheating husband, several health issues, and a current inability to write—let alone finish—her latest mystery novel.

Chess and Emily lead different lives, though there’s enough history between them that the friendship does not die easily. In the opening pages, Emily talks frankly about not particularly liking Chess anymore, but when Chess sweeps into the restaurant with a smile just for her, she (and, by proxy, the reader) remembers what makes Chess so compelling.

I will say this several times throughout my Villa book review, but Rachel Hawkins is a master of character. I saw this in Reckless Girls, but it seems even more pronounced in her latest novel. Emily is like us—despite being a fairly successful author, she is grounded. Ordinary. Normal. It is easy to relate to her views of the world and particularly to her feelings about Chess. We can understand and condone even her darkest thoughts, given everything she has been through.

Chess, on the other hand, is a bright star that always seems just out of reach. There are two versions of her—the self-help guru who speaks in affirmations and the woman who’s bored and tired and looking for her next great adventure. She’s seen success. She has money. Everybody knows her name. And it’s never enough. But just like Emily, we hate her in one breath and envy her in the next. And sometimes we even sympathize with her, too. There was never a moment where I wrote off Chess completely, and that is the mark of an incredible author.

On a whim, Emily accepts Chess’ invitation to Italy to stay in a villa called Aestas for the summer. Their plan is to hang out, disconnect from the world, reconnect with each other, and get some writing done. But as picturesque as the villa is, it holds a dark history: Back in the ’70s, it was witness to a horrific murder.

the villa rachel hawkins book review

The book flips between Emily’s point of view and Mari’s, the girlfriend of up-and-coming musician Pierce Sheldon and a writer herself. When Mari’s step-sister, Lara, says they’ve all been invited to the villa by a famous rock star, there is little doubt they’ll take him up on his offer. This could be Pierce’s big break, and Mari might even get some time to herself to fulfill her dream of writing a book.

Much like Emily, we’re meant to sympathize with Mari the most. After running away from home to be with Pierce, she’s been struggling to make ends meet. As Pierce leads a rock star life, it’s Mari who is forced to mind the finances and ensure he gets the opportunities he deserves. Through her eyes, we see her love for Pierce, even if we don’t feel the same way. In the same vein, we understand the disdain for her sister, though it’s clear that Lara is not a bad person, just simply immature and longing for a connection she never seems to receive.

What follows is a slow unraveling of the mystery. We know, from the beginning, that someone in Mari’s party will be murdered. It doesn’t even take long to find out who. But why? And which of them does it? What is the truth?

Emily becomes as obsessed with this story as we do. It starts out small—looking up articles on the internet to learn the facts. Then tuning into a true-crime podcast to get a better picture of the story. She also finds Mari’s book, Lilith Rising, which appears to be a fictionalized version of the tale. Emily must become a sleuth in her own right, parsing out which parts are real and which have been altered. This leads her to an earth-shattering discovery.

It is interesting to see the events of 1974 influencing a character in the present day, and to watch as the puzzle pieces fall into place. Details that were mentioned in throwaway lines in the beginning of the book return with a vengeance, more important than we ever could’ve dreamed. Suddenly what happened in the past feels as though it’s looming right over our shoulders, all-too present and consuming.

I’m still in awe of Hawkins’ ability to layer these two stories together. It’s not just that they take place in the same house, but that the themes of both stories mirror each other in some ways and diverge in others. It is a complicated web of love, loss, murder, and revenge. There are truly inspired moments of passion that turn to bitter betrayal in the blink of an eye, only to be brought back into the light with a single act of understanding and empathy.

I won’t spoil anything in this Villa book review because I want anyone who reads it to experience the twists and turns and revelations firsthand, but just know that the ending is perfectly fitting for the story—and truly satisfying. I had to put the book down several times to sit back and stare off into the middle distance, just to truly absorb what I’d read. There is a thread woven throughout the story about the perception of truth and the treatment true crime gets from “fans” and the media, and though this is not the main takeaway of the book, it is one of the aspects that has stuck with me the most.

Please trust me when I say I’m not being hyperbolic. This is truly one of the best books I’ve ever read. If you have dreams of becoming a writer, study this book. Not only is the story itself tightly crafted, it is a perfect chronicle of the highs and lows of that career. We witness Mari, Emily, and even Chess struggling to write, to get their ideas down on paper. But we also get to watch them become enthralled with a story, simply devoured by their desire to expel their thoughts and craft a work of art. And then we get to see the impact of their legacy. This added a new dimension to the book for me, and one which felt infused with Rachel Hawkins’ spirit. As an author myself, I appreciated that more than she could ever know. I can feel inspiration biting at my heels, even now.

Maybe this book won’t have the impact on you that it did on me, and if that’s the case, I’m truly sorry. But if my Villa book review tells you anything, it’s that this novel took hold of me from the opening page and still hasn’t let go, even days after finishing it. But even so, I am already patiently waiting to see how deeply Rachel Hawkins’ next Gothic suspense will dig its claws into me.

‘The Villa’ hit store shelves on January 3, 2023

Buy The Villa by Rachel Hawkins on Macmillan, Bookshop.org, Book Depository, or Amazon. You can also add it to your Goodreads list.

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