“The Writing Retreat” by Julia Bartz Is a Good Example!
There are definitely hints of a stronger book in The Writing Retreat hidden beneath the mountain of baggage that fills its 400 or so pages. This one could have been a great little thriller. This one is a huge letdown due to the angst-filled characters, the tedious pace, and a hearty helping of the ridiculously unbelievable, which is a great shame given what this has to work with.
The premise of Julia Bartz’s debut book should be enough to make you want to buy it right away, but you might want to wait. In its most basic version, five women are chosen for a month-long writing retreat and taken to a secluded estate run by a well-known feminist author named Roza Vallo.
Alex, a struggling novelist with writer’s block and significant underlying difficulties with her former best friend Wren, is one of those invited. By chance, Wren is also chosen to be a member of this shelter, and the two are compelled to work in the same location. Alex quickly understands that there might be homicidal intent circulating through the veins of the other women as they begin to settle in and learn the rules of this small game. Can she endure?
This is a slow-moving work, as was already said, and it takes around 200 pages before anything noteworthy occurs besides the arrival of the women at the retreat. But even then, The Writing Retreat has a lot of mistakes—not just in terms of the story’s logic, but also in terms of its characters and language.
The worst of them occurs during a drug trip, and there’s an odd need in this one to keep returning to graphic representations of sex between women that really don’t work. I use the term “hallucinogen” very loosely since anyone who has used hallucinogens or has had drug usage experience will find the clichéd descriptions to be utterly untrue.
Speaking of cliches, this book employs a tonne of them throughout the course of its narrative, with the finale planned out from the very beginning, even in the first few chapters. I understand that these things can happen in a debut novel, but it’s never a good indication to predict your book’s ending and the fate of your characters so early on.
However, there are issues even outside of the story’s rules. Nothing makes that more clear than the prose’s manner. It takes a gifted author to pull off that meta-satirical humor, and as a result, The Writing Retreat nearly reads like a self-parody.
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Roza announces that her writers have reached the halfway point of the book and expresses her hope that the audience won’t get too bored. Another time, Roza offers advice to her writers, particularly Wren, pointing out the need for us to connect with the main character and providing a list of strategies for doing so, including making the character low-flying and poor rather than high-flying and successful. But, despite adhering to this procedure, Julia Bartz doesn’t do a particularly excellent job of making her characters likable.
To be completely honest, it’s hard to like Alex and Wren as characters. Until very late in the game, Wren in particular comes across as narcotic, greedy, and opportunistic. At that point, things start to alter a little. As for Alex, she spends most of her time acting resentful, needy, weak, and confused while obsessing over Wren. To be fair, she does develop into more of a heroine by the end of the novel, but the process of getting there feels forced.
The Writing Retreat is a huge failure in light of everything said above, not to mention the various excerpts from Alex’s fictitious novel that are strewn throughout as if even Julia Bartz is anxious to escape her own tragedy. It’s a shame as well because this place has promise. This could have been a fantastic read with better editing, a new plot, and likable characters. Sadly, it is not.