Wednesday, February 22, 2023

The Writing Retreat by Julia Bartz

The Writing Retreat
by Julia Bartz
Published February 21, 2023 by Atria

The Plot meets Please Join Us in this psychological suspense debut about a young author at an exclusive writer’s retreat that descends into a nightmare.

Alex has all but given up on her dreams of becoming a published author when she receives a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: attend an exclusive, month-long writing retreat at the estate of feminist horror writer Roza Vallo. Even the knowledge that Wren, her former best friend and current rival, is attending doesn’t dampen her excitement.

But when the attendees arrive, Roza drops a bombshell—they must all complete an entire novel from scratch during the next month, and the author of the best one will receive a life-changing seven-figure publishing deal. Determined to win this seemingly impossible contest, Alex buckles down and tries to ignore the strange happenings at the estate, including Roza’s erratic behavior, Wren’s cruel mind games, and the alleged haunting of the mansion itself. But when one of the writers vanishes during a snowstorm, Alex realizes that something very sinister is afoot. With the clock running out, she’s desperate to discover the truth and save herself.

A claustrophobic and propulsive thriller exploring the dark side of friendships and fame, The Writing Retreat is the unputdownable debut novel from a compelling new talent.

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4 Stars

Alex hasn't so much embraced her new loner life, rather than just given in to the failure she knows everyone smells on her. She and her best friend went through a horrible friend breakup and ever since success just hasn't been in her cards. She can't write, she can't connect with others, and her job is just something she does each day. An incredible, once in a lifetime chance to attend her favorite author's writing retreat brings back her spark and with it her former best friend, Wren, reenters her life. What should be an incredible opportunity to write again, find herself, and forge new bonds soon becomes a nightmare as strange things occur and one woman goes missing.

I am a big fan of authors who embrace the wild and obscene in their books, who can make totally unbelievable scenarios come to life. It's a fine line to walk, I know I am a hard reader to convince to suspend reality, but Julia Bartz did so quite well. A writing retreat, a reclusive author, and 5 young women desperate to become authors is entirely believable. A retreat going entirely off the rails? Also believable. The things that ultimately occur at this retreat? Truly unbelievable, except somehow I saw it playing out before my eyes on the pages and I was totally hooked. These women are desperate for success and once presented with author Roza Vallo's writing competition, they divide and it becomes girl eat girl as they vie for compliments and time with their favorite horror writer.

I enjoyed the concept, I love a good competition on a "deserted island" type setting, I just wish that the characters had been further fleshed out. Unfortunately, outside of Alex, the characters are fairly two dimensional and they never grow beyond that, with stilted dialogue and Alex's selfish inner monologue guiding our perspective. There's fantastic sociopolitical undertones to the novel, we just don't get enough time with those concepts to really develop any feeling about it. We know the women are different, it's mentioned, then brushed to the side. I would have loved to see this more fleshed out, to have extensive dialogue interaction between the characters, because ultimately we only care about Alex and even that's saying something.

The Writing Retreat was an excellent take on the stranded thriller storyline. While I wish it had a bit more fleshing out for the characters, I still enjoyed the read and found myself wanting to get back to my book as soon as possible each time I set it down. I think many readers will love this book and even relate to Alex's inner turmoil over her self worth and a friendship lost.

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