The Writing Retreat by Julia Bartz

In this shape-shifting tale, aspiring novelists come together at a possibly haunted estate with a famously reclusive writer–for what turns out to be as much horror as inspiration.

Alex, the glum protagonist of Julia Bartz’s The Writing Retreat, has recently crossed into her 30s. Stuck in long-term writer’s block, her dreams of making it as a novelist are just about dead; she holds a thankless and “bleakly underpaid” position in publishing; her sex life is equally bleak; and she still mourns her traumatic friend-breakup with the more successful Wren a year ago. So it feels like a shocking and undeserved honor to be accepted to a fantastically exclusive writing retreat hosted by Roza Vallo, the wildly successful novelist Alex has idolized since she was 12 years old. The catch is that Wren has been accepted, too.

Roza’s Blackbriar Estate in the Adirondacks in New York is grand, dramatic and supposedly haunted. Roza herself is famous, rather controversial and private: the five young women attending the retreat must sign NDAs. Alex’s adoration of her enigmatic hero is enormous, and she senses this is her big shot at turning her life around: “If I lived in a pocket of Roza Vallo’s brain, however small, I sensed it would bolster my own existence.” She is also nearly crippled by anxiety about being near Wren–but that concern is quickly overshadowed by the terms of Roza’s intensely competitive program for the retreat. The five writers in attendance must each complete a whole novel in just 28 days, and the best of their works will win a million-dollar advance on a publishing deal. Even as the high-speed writing race ramps up and the drama with Wren continues to smolder, it emerges that something still more sinister is going on behind the scenes at Blackbriar Estate. Inexorably, The Writing Retreat evolves into a locked-room mystery, as eight women–five young writers, two staff and Roza–find themselves snowed in at Blackbriar and beset by potentially fatal threats that may be supernatural or simply human evil.

Bartz imbues her writing with a shape-shifting momentum: the plot’s focus moves from the small, painful dramas of competition and jealousies in friendship into horror and psychological suspense. Blackbriar Estate is both magnetic, in its haunting history and narrative possibilities, and stifling. The world of writing and publishing can be, at turns, solitary, socially supportive, triumphant and backbiting, and The Writing Retreat encompasses all these possibilities and more, as it explores friendship and family traumas, artistic crises and human nature. Bartz’s debut subverts genre in the interest of entertainment, satire and chilling thrills.

This review originally ran in the January 19, 2023 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 words.

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