Content Warning: Mental & Physical Abuse
Julia Bartz’s debut novel sets a chaotic tone in its first line and what unfolds doesn’t disappoint. The Writing Retreat’s premise is reminiscent of a Julie Foley novel and a hint of Liane Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers with the underlying anxiety every writer can relate to, word count and a deadline.
Bartz’s narrator is a relatable mess, Alex is struggling with writer’s block and a falling out with her best friend, Wren, when she is offered the dream opportunity of attending a writer’s retreat hosted by horror author and personal hero Roza Vallo at the Blackbriar Estate in the Adirondacks. The setting is idyllic, the company less so as she finds Wren in attendance with a new threat looming over her- 3,000 words a day and a new novel by the end of the month.
These circumstances alone could create enough tension to last a novel, but when members of the retreat start to go missing the plot takes a dangerous turn. The setting and tone of the narrative grows increasingly unsettling as the story pivots towards the more violent. Bartz creates a world that feels isolated and claustrophobic yet expansive in its possibilities.
Alex is a curious and relatable protagonist who you find yourself cheering on as she grows within the confines of her experience. It’s hard to not want to see how her story plays out as she embarks on the retreat and develops her own sense of self within it.
Though the dialogue is stilted at times and there are topics that feel uncomfortable for some audiences, you can’t help but be pulled into Bartz’s nightmarish fever dream. It explores tension and female relationships in an intriguing and nuanced way and lays out a story you may think you can predict but will still somehow leave you speechless.