I received an advance reader’s copy (ARC) of The Writing Retreat by Julia Bartz. Since this version is just a proof and not the final version, I won’t quote directly and will keep my comments general.
In The Writing Retreat by debut author Julia Bartz, Alex has been struggling with writer’s block and grief from her dramatic falling out with her best friend. So when she finds out that she has been chosen to go to an incredibly selective retreat run by her favorite author, Roza Vallo, she is delighted. Even the knowledge that her ex-best friend Wren will be there. However, when the women arrive, Roza reveals that each of them has to write an entire novel over the next month, and the one chosen as the winner will get a massive book deal. Alex is determined to win, but the longer she spends in Roza’s remote mansion, the more she starts to suspect that something suspicious is going on. Soon, she’s racing the clock, and the stakes are potentially deadly.
Apparently I’m in a mystery/thriller mood for some reason. And in fact, this book and the previous novel I read have quite a similar setup (though a much different plot and execution). Weird.
Also, if I had been asked to write a catchy description for this, I’d have called this NaNoWriMo: The Hunger Games Edition. But sadly, no one asked me.
So this was a pretty creepy story. I really loved the setting of the old mansion in the woods, with a winter storm rolling in. This has everything you want from a haunted house, short of ghosts: there is a dark basement, a dusty attic, secret passages, weird portraits. I really enjoyed getting to explore this place through Alex’s eyes.
The characters are quite good, as well. Alex and Wren’s relationship is prickly and strange and complicated, and I liked how Bartz slowly unraveled and rebuilt their rather troublesome bond. It was a good look at how the ending of a friendship, while often viewed as less important, can be just as devastating as the ending of a romance. And seeing how both women change over the course of the novel was pretty cool, and I liked how things wrapped up at the end of the book.
The other characters were also well-written for the most part. Roza is so sinister and strange, but at times charismatic and warm. Scenes with her were always fun. I also liked the interplay between Alex, Wren and the other contestants. I feel that Roza’s employees didn’t get much development, and they were a little one-note, though.
That said, though, the plot was entertaining. The gradual escalation from innocent writing retreat to a much more dangerous situation was perfectly paced, and you got the sense that while some of Roza’s actions were premeditated, others were a little more reactive as the women caught on to the strangeness. I also enjoyed seeing some of Alex’s internal turmoil through excerpts of the manuscript she wrote throughout the book. Unfortunately, the ending of the drama felt a little abrupt. It didn’t make sense to me that a certain character gives up their goal so easily after coming so far. And the antagonist didn’t get as much comeuppance as I wanted.
Also, and this is less important, but I thought we’d get more resolution regarding the story Alex told about seeing a monster in the woods as a child. I really thought that was going to come back, but it didn’t. So… what was it? Was it really a monster? I know it didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but it was a thread I didn’t want left hanging.
In the end, though, The Writing Retreat is a strong debut. The atmosphere and setting are immersive, the characters and their relationships are layered, and the plot moves along at a steady, reasonable rate. It’s very dark and ominous, but compels you to keep reading to see what on earth is planned next. I didn’t adore the ending, but maybe that’s just how I am with thrillers, and I still think this book is worth a read if you like the genre!
Content note: There is some language, which honestly is to be expected given the characters’ situation. Moreover, there’s a decent amount of semi-explicit sexual content, alcohol and drug use, and violence.
The Writing Retreat will be published on February 21st, 2023!