I guess that old adage about never meeting your heroes is apropos in Julia Bartz’s debut 2023 novel, The Writing Retreat.
In the novel, aspiring novelist, Alex, idolizes feminist novelist and icon, Roza Vallo. While down-on-her-luck at her publishing job with a tyrannical boss, and still overcoming a rough break-up with her friend and sort-of lover, Wren, Alex finds renewed purpose by lucking into Vallo’s writing retreat at her famed Blackbriar estate.
… only, Wren also got into Vallo’s writing retreat, as did Poppy, Taylor, and Keira. What happened with Wren and Alex, we learn, is that they had a lesbian encounter and then Wren ghosted Alex, with the implication that Wren wasn’t yet ready to accept her sexual orientation. Later, when they saw each other at a bar, Alex confronted Wren about ghosting her and sort-of-maybe pushed Wren down some steps, severely injuring her non-writing hand. Vallo plays on this tension to seemingly inspire Alex to utilize that pain to write her novel (which I’m not sure she quite does!).
Vallo plays the role of eccentric, aloof, reclusive rich and famous novelist. At least, that’s what we are to think. Alex recounts an early anecdote of going to a public event where Vallo was to speak with another up-and-coming male author. Instead, at that event, Vallo uses the platform to accuse the male author of stealing his book from his ex-girlfriend. Fans of hers saw it as a feminist rallying cry, taking down a faux-author. However, after that anecdote, that’s what I expected to occur with Vallo: that she was merely projecting her own plagiarism and nefariousness. And she was!
Except, it was more sinister than I initially expected. She brought all the girls to the retreat to essentially steal their book ideas from them — they were tasked with writing an entire book in the month of February, and if someone can’t hack it, they’re “kicked off the island,” as it were — and if necessary, kill them in the process. Along the way, we learn that Poppy is actually Zoe, someone 10-15 years older than the rest, who is avenging her aunt Lucy’s murder. Vallo killed Lucy to take her book. The only book Vallo actually wrote was critically panned, so, she’s fashioned herself as an editor who can forge great writing out of the crucible of tragedy and trauma from other women. It’s effed up, of course, but that’s her reasoning. We also learn that Taylor wasn’t one of the “contestants” in the retreat, after all, but one of Vallo’s lovers and source of a prior successful book, and presently, her henchman doing all the dirty work.
I figured one or two of the girls wasn’t who they said they were, but where the book did subvert my expectations, mainly in not doing what I expected, was that the book wasn’t supernatural. You see, Alex’s idea for a book was historical fiction, telling the story of Daphne, a spiritualist who supposedly lived at Blackbriar previously and killed herself and her husband. I thought that would meld into some sort of supernatural element within the actual story of the book. Instead, Daphne was the source of Alex’s strength to fight back against Vallo. I prefer that!
In the end, Zoe is killed by Taylor; Kiera is seemingly also killed by Taylor, but she comes back to save the day; and Wren and Alex survive and bury the hatchet between each other, albeit, not enough to reignite their flame; and as for, Vallo, she basically gets away with it, although her reputation is tarnished, so, there’s that. Oh, and then Wren, Kiera, and Alex all publish their books, with Vallo sending a teasing text message to Alex. Thus, Alex realizes, in some way, the writing retreat was what she needed.
Now, the concept of the book is awesome. What aspiring writer, myself included, hasn’t fantasized about going to a writing retreat and talking shop with their favorite author about the craft of writing? Then, Bartz merely needs to ratchet up the stakes with plagiarism (more horrific than murder in the writing world; I kid, I kid) and murder, and you have a fun little novel. I didn’t think the writing was particularly strong or noteworthy (many of the similes are rather trite and that stuck out to me … like a sore thumb; see?); I would compare the book to a fun Sunday afternoon Lifetime movie. That’s not a knock, either! I’m not being condescending: I loved watching Lifetime movies back in the day. They are addicting for a reason, and similarly, I kept turning the pages of Bartz’s novel.
A running motif in the book is that most authors only have one masterpiece in them, which is why Vallo keeps discarding women along the way to “acquiring” “her” next book, but I do think this was a good start for Bartz and yet, that we will see better from her in the future.