Julia Bartz | The Writing Retreat

The Book: 

The Writing Retreat by Julia Bartz
Published February 21, 2023 by Atria/Emily Bestler Books
Date read: February 9, 2023

The Characters: 


Rating: 3 out of 5.

Buy it on Bookshop.org | Amazon

The Plot (from Goodreads):

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.

Click here for book spoilers for The Writing Retreat
Book spoilers ahead–if you haven’t yet read The Writing Retreat, I suggest you turn back now.

The Reveal:

Wren and Alex’s falling out was because they slept together once and then Ren ghosted their friendship.

At the writing retreat, Roza was eccentric from the start. One night she laced the cocktails with LSD, so all the girls started tripping. Poppy told Alex that she had something to show her in the basement. Alex hallucinated that she had sex with the demoness that she was writing the book about, but really it was Taylor. When she woke up in bed, Poppy had disappeared.

While searching for Poppy, they found a door open in the basement with footprints in the snow leading outside. For some reason, Roza refused to call the police. The phone was out, the snowblower was broken, and Roza insisted that roads wouldn’t be plowed.

The girls continued to try to find answers. When Poppy had led Alex to the basement, she had said she found evidence that Roza wasn’t whom she pretended to be. Alex and Wren found a secret door in the basement and determined that it lead up to Roza’s room. Alex searched Roza’s room and found a surveillance room–Roza had been watching the girls’ every move. She found Poppy in a cell, and was knocked out with a syringe and locked up too.

Poppy was really a woman named Zoe, whose aunt had been killed by Roza. Roza had stolen Zoe’s aunt’s book and then killed her and published it as her own. Zoe was there for revenge, pretending to be the much younger Poppy. She told Alex all of this while they were locked up together. Shortly thereafter, Keira, Wren, and Taylor found them. Taylor locked the other girls in the cell too–she was in on it with Roza and her employees because she was Roza’s girlfriend. Zoe’s opinion was that Roza had lured all the girls to her house to kill them and steal their books.

Roza told them that if they continued to write, they’d be fed. If any one of them failed to write 3000 words per day, the whole group wouldn’t be fed the next day. At one point, Taylor came down with dinner. There was a scuffle when some of the girls tried to escape, and Zoe was shot and died.

Eventually Jana released Keira and Alex and told them to run, but Alex couldn’t leave Wren. She went back and tried to fight Roza, but she was recaptured. Roza said she’d have to kill Wren to be able to live. She also had Taylor kill Jana and Chitra, and Taylor died too. Keira returned to save Wren and Alex, but Roza maintained power. She locked up all three girls and escaped. (Why did Roza just let the girls go?? This whole “they got away, oh wait no they didn’t, they did again, now she caught them again” was disorienting and confusing, especially on audio).

The Ending:

In the epilogue, Alex has finished the book about Daphne. She was still friends with Keira and friendly with Wren. It wasn’t really explained how Keira got back or the picture of her dead, but she had somehow made it back to the garage, where Chitra took care of her until she was killed.

Roza texted Alex from a burner phone saying she liked Alex’s book and that she’d always be watching her.

The Review: 

Thank you to S&S Audio for this gifted ALC.

I loved closed-door thrillers in isolated resorts (especially in a snowstorm), and I love book-within-a-book stories. There was a lot of promise here!

The Writing Retreat felt to me like The Plot and The Villa meet Nine Perfect Strangers. I’m on the fence–there were parts I loved (Roza holding nothing back while encouraging these young writers to produce an award-winning novel) and parts I didn’t (the sex dream with the demon, which just felt a little out of place, but desired shock value was achieved!).

I don’t want to spoil anything, but I liked the reveal of who was playing which role in the strange happenings in the mansion. The ending, however, didn’t feel realistic. There was a lot of back and forth, and it was hard to keep straight.

I’m intrigued by Julia Bartz’s writing (if you didn’t know, she’s the sister of Andrea Bartz). I think with time she’ll refine her craft and just get better from here.

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