‘The Writing Retreat’ by Julia Bartz – Book Review

A Big Misfire

The Writing Retreat could have been a decent little thriller, and there’s definitely glimmers in here of a better book under the overwhelming amount of baggage that comes packed in the 400 or so pages this one operates with. Between the angst-filled characters, the laborious pace and a generous helping of the ludicrously incredulous, this one’s a massive let down, which is a real shame given what this has to work with.

The premise for Julia Bartz’s debut novel is enough to instantly hit the buy button but trust me, you may want to hold off on doing that. In its simplest form, five women are selected for a month-long writing retreat where they’re whisked off to a remote estate operated by a famous feminist writer called Roza Vallo.

Among those invited is Alex, a struggling novelist who has writer’s block and serious underlying issues with her old best friend Wren. As fate would have it, Wren is also selected to be part of this refuge and the pair are forced to work in the same area together. As they settle in and learn the rules of this little game, Alex soon realizes that there could be murderous intent running through the veins of the other ladies. Can she survive?

As mentioned above, this is one slow book and it takes a good 200 pages or so before anything significant happens beyond the ladies showing up at the retreat. Even then though, The Writing Retreat stumble into numerous missteps, not just from a logical perspective with the narrative but also with its characters and dialogue.

There’s a strange desire in this one to continue slipping back into graphic depictions of sex between women that really doesn’t work, the worst of which occurring during a “drug trip”. I use those words very loosely because anyone who has taken hallucinogens or has experience with drugs will find themselves rolling their eyes over the cliched descriptions that are very far removed from reality.

Speaking of clichés, this book throws up numerous tropes and contrivances right the way through its narrative, with the ending orchestrated early on in the book, even so far as the first few chapters. I do appreciate as a debut novel that these things can happen but to suss out the ending to your book and what will happen to your characters that early on, is never a good sign.

Unfortunately, even beyond the conventions of the story there are problems. No more so is that more evident that in the style of prose. It takes a talented writer to get that meta, satirical humour right, and The Writing Retreat almost becomes a parody of itself as a result.

At the halfway point of the book, Roza exclaims that her writers are “at the halfway point now” and hopes those in attendance aren’t too bored. Another time, Roza gives guidance to her writers (in particular Wren), mentioning how we need to empathize with the main character and lists out how to do that, including crafting her to be down and out rather than high-flying and rich. But yet, the irony here is that Julia Bartz doesn’t do a particularly good job of making her characters likable, despite following this protocol.

The characters of Alex and Wren are, quite frankly, just not all that likable. Wren in particular comes across as narcicisstic, greedy and opportunistic until very late in the game where that changes slightly. As for Alex, she spends most of her time obsessing over Wren, acting bitter, needy, weak and confused. To be fair, she does grow into becoming more of a “heroine” toward the end of the story but the journey there feels contrived.

With all this in mind, not to mention the numerous extracts of Alex’s makeshift novel peppered through, as if even Julia Bartz is desperate to get away from her own story, The Writing Retreat is a big misfire. It’s such a shame too because there’s definitely potential here. With extra editing, a revamped plot and more likable characters, this could have been a great read. Alas, this is not.

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  • Verdict - 3/10

2 thoughts on “‘The Writing Retreat’ by Julia Bartz – Book Review”

  1. My mother of 80years is reading this book from the local library in large print that is geared for the old generation. She asked me to write her comment. She finds the story line interesting and a good read. BUT the foul language is not necessary to maintain the good read. She would enjoy reading more of her books only if the foul language was cleaner.

  2. hi– I found TWR fascinating on many levels that were not addressed in your review. Most importantly, the author subtly pointed out how women sabotage other women–not all oppression is a result of the patriarchy. Also, how easily women are prone to self-doubt and avoiding confrontation. They often “give away” their power to others, not realizing how difficult it is to get back. I question whether the sexual tension was necessary to the plot. The wardrobe/portals in Roza’s bedroom and in the basement were obviously borrowed from C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and dovetailed nicely with author’s POV that there are no new stories. I also liked the author’s premise that problems can be more perception than reality and not as soul-shattering as we fear (re Alex and Wren). I also liked writer’s premise that our best writing emanates from our deepest pain and how using our pain ultimately empowers us. The takeaways for me were that Roza represents the devil who demands pieces of our soul in exchange for success in this world and beware of granting others too much power over us.

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