Review: The Writing Retreat (Julia Barth)

Imagine knocking your first novel right out of the park and becoming an overnight success. Then you have a bit of a setback, with your sophomore effort suffering…well, the sophomore effect: not great reviews, fewer sales, and people wondering if you can even come near, much less match, the success of your first book. The next time out, though, you’re back in that rarefied air, and before you know it, you have a string of bestsellers under your belt. That’s Roza Vallo, who runs a writing retreat every year for five promising female authors under the age of 30.

One of those writers heading to the retreat is Alex, who started a novel but didn’t finish it, and has been blocked for over a year on what to write and how to write it. She doesn’t think she has a chance to get one of those five coveted spots with one of her favorite authors, but as luck would have it, she gets her chance. The only thing that threatens to sour her mood is that her ex-BFF Wren will also be there. She’s resolved to not let this hamper her in her quest to best the block and start making her own way in the literary world.

Off she goes to the retreat, meeting the other women and the mansion, which has its own story. I had already not been liking needy, whiny Alex all that much. When she reaches the mansion, she meets the other women, and all of them have some rather forced, awkward conversations. They head to their respective rooms to clean up for dinner, where they meet their odd host and mentor, Roza. Roza tells them they will all be writing an entire novel during their stay. Of those, she will select one, and the writer of that one will be given a seven figure deal for their book. They will all meet every day, and all of them will also meet one on one with Roza.

I don’t mind novels about novels – Misery by Stephen King is one of my favorite books. Alex, who still has no idea what to write, prowls the library in the mansion, and finds a spark in an account of a crime that happened right in this very mansion. This starts to gel for her, and she begins to write, as do the others, all of whom are under the same deadline to produce as Alex. The book she writes, the excepts of which are given to us, the reader, just was not interesting to me at all – I’m not a regular reader of paranormal stuff. Still, she’s writing, even if she is still fairly whiny.

The aspiring novelists could be rearranged, renamed, and reassigned with virtually no loss or confusion, as they’re not that deep. Roza as a character is not just eccentric but seriously odd, and in fact, a criminal. Spiking peoples’ drinks with LSD is not okay. She also seems to be weird just for the sake of being weird and also speaks like someone from the 18th century.

A giant storm has isolated the mansion from the rest of the world, making it a locked room mystery, effectively. Strange things begin happening throughout, Alex discovers Roza isn’t exactly on the level, and the book devolved for me into cliches and tropes – including the one thing we always shout at characters in movies about to descend into a dark basement: don’t go down those stairs. But, that’s exactly what happens.

The last 20% or so of the book has some decent action as well as actual murder, so all was not lost, although the ending was not entirely pleasing and left things open-ended and a bit vague. The rationale behind what’s going on was something I’d already guessed long before the writers even got to the mansion, thanks to a scene where the author might as well have drawn a giant red circle on the scene, in case it wasn’t obvious enough.

Overall, it isn’t a terrible book. The writing is fine, although I wish there had been something to differentiate the women in the group, as they all sounded a lot alike, and their personalities alone really were not enough. It isn’t a great book – too many cliches/tropes, and a lot of “female empowerment” gong on, which is fine, but something that slowed down the story. It is something you can read in an afternoon and not feel like you wasted any time, which is a major point in my scoring system.

Three stars out of five.

Thanks to Atria Books and NetGalley for the reading copy.

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