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The Writing Retreat


The Writing Retreat

THE WRITING RETREAT, Julia Bartz's debut thriller, is set at an exclusive retreat where six talented, young female writers must dig into their pains, labor over their metaphors and write the best novels they can. Or perish?

More than 30 years ago, the literary world exploded when Roza Vallo published Devil’s Tongue, a lyrical and lush gothic horror that shocked readers with its content, then shocked them again when they learned that the author was only 19. Since then, she has become the idol of female readers and writers everywhere. Two years ago, Roza announced that she would hold a month-long writing retreat at her home, personally fostering and cultivating four up-and-coming writers under the age of 30. But there are no women who want to be admitted to the retreat more than Alex and her best friend of eight years, Wren. Or at least they used to be best friends.

"Full of twists, turns and devious female friendships THE WRITING RETREAT is a startling, intriguing locked-room thriller with a sharp, satirical bent: a chaotic look into the supposedly quiet, classy world of publishing."

It has been one year since Alex watched as her closest relationship blew up in her face when Wren abruptly “dumped” her. Soon after, a confrontation at a bar found Wren at the bottom of stone steps, impaled through the hand by her own wine glass. Since then, Alex has not been able to write a single word. Then she receives a life-changing phone call: another writer friend, Ursula, has a mutual connection to the Roza Vallo through her agent. A woman has just dropped out of this year’s retreat, and Roza, desperate to fill the gap, has decided to accept Alex after receiving one of her short stories through Ursula and her agent.

There’s just one catch: Ursula has grown tired of the inexplicable feud between Alex and Wren. Unable to choose one friend to champion, she submitted stories from both women. And both have been accepted. Even though she dreads running into Wren in such close quarters, Alex cannot deny that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So she sets off for the remote Blackbriar Estate, nestled deep in the woods of upstate New York.

When Alex arrives at Blackbriar and gets acquainted with the other guests, she is pleasantly surprised to learn that they’re all nervous about meeting Roza and showing her their work. Unlike Alex, however, none of them have been living with writer’s block for the past year. Adding a chilling air to the growing tension, the manor is decidedly creepy, and the story of its dark past sets the girls on edge. In the late 19th century, Horace, the owner of the manor, fell in love with Daphne, a local waitress and a secret occultist who claimed to come into contact with a demon who instructed her to paint masterworks that would change all of humanity. Before they could be completed, a storm set in. By week’s end, Horace was found viciously dismembered in his bed, and Daphne was burned to a crisp in the basement.

With the ghosts of the manor’s past lingering over every conversation and interaction, the young writers are already on edge. Then Roza makes a startling announcement: each woman must begin a brand new project and write 3,000 words a day to be workshopped and critiqued by the group the next day. Whoever writes the best novel by the end of the retreat will earn a million-dollar book deal, the opportunity to go on tour with Roza, and, of course, the kind of rise to stardom that only happens in books.

Although Roza claims to have set clear, explicit rules, she is also a bit of a wild card, toying with the girls and preying upon their insecurities. After Alex reveals to Roza the truth about what really ended her friendship with Wren, Roza encourages her to work through the pain to find the power to forgive --- and move on from --- her former friend. She believes that Alex must channel Daphne and write a fictionalized account of her dance with a demon. The premise is enticing, and the setting certainly lends itself to research. But as Alex starts to get into her protagonist’s head, she must wonder who, or what, she’s really channeling, and why Roza seems so set on her writing this story at this retreat with the person who hurt her the most.

As the women work on their novels, strange occurrences begin to pile up --- from painful encounters with Roza to vicious gossip and, finally, the disappearance of one guest after a drug-fueled evening of writing during a blizzard. With no cell phone service, no transportation, and no one to question Roza’s history or real intentions, the girls must work together to uncover the truth about Blackbriar, Roza and the competition they’ve been entered into…or play the game in hopes of finding life-changing success.

Full of twists, turns and devious female friendships THE WRITING RETREAT is a startling, intriguing locked-room thriller with a sharp, satirical bent: a chaotic look into the supposedly quiet, classy world of publishing. As the “healthy competition” proposed by Roza turns cutthroat, Bartz not only pushes her characters into dangerous mind games, she leads her readers into more than a few as well. The plot is riveting, but so too are the novels the women are writing and the stories they tell one another as they fight to the finish line, with “plot” becoming almost a character in and of itself.

Meanwhile, the character of Roza is as enthralling as she is sinister, yet the idea of living, dining and working with your idol is so alluring that you can’t help but look away. On top of crafting a clever mystery, Bartz has tapped into our love for and obsession with writers, the craft of storytelling, and the unbeatable feeling of settling into a new world for hours and days.

Perfect for readers of Jean Hanff Korelitz's THE PLOT and David Bell's KILL ALL YOUR DARLINGS, THE WRITING RETREAT announces Julia Bartz as a promising new suspense writer, one whose cleverness is equally matched by her obvious love of the written word. Bonus for readers of Andrea Bartz’s books: Julia is Andrea’s sister. Although they write compelling, fresh and original works incomparable to one another, it is clear that stellar talent runs in the family.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on February 24, 2023

The Writing Retreat
by Julia Bartz