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by Julia Bartz
Atria, February 2023
320 pages
ISBN: 1982199458

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

This book is more about sexuality, especially the lesbian kind, than it is about a writing retreat. It is, however, a view of queer sexuality which grants it a kind of demonic destructive power. The set up of the book is that a rich, successful writer hosts a retreat for young 20-something female writers in her Gothic home. The retreat turns into a sort of competition with the writers spewing out 3000 words a day for a month with the prize of a publishing contract dangled before them. In the process, Julia Bartz throws virtually every gothic horror trope int.o THE WRITING RETREAT, turning the novel into a grab bag of twists, turns, and other machinations. To name just a few, we have a book within a book, hidden rooms, drug-induced sexual encounters, a remote and isolated mansion, a snow storm locking everyone into the building, supernatural demons…

There are so many different threads that it's possible to get caught up in the constantly morphing plot and forget that there's not much depth or substance to the book. The author is very good with WHAT is happening, but not so much with WHY. The reader is expected to believe that the dangerous behavior of virtually all of the characters is caused pretty much by everyone's obsession with Rosa, the writer who is running the retreat. While it is certainly possible that one character, or maybe even a couple, could be so obsessed, it stretches belief beyond the breaking point to believe that every character would go to the lengths the plot takes them to because of a fixation on a single woman, no matter how magnetic. This is especially true since Bartz' characterization of Rosa is virtually unidimensional. She is a true villain, resorting to manipulation, drugs, torture, and murder to get her way.

The plot is so outrageous that I found myself reading it with (figuratively) my hands over my eyes. What will our mentor, her hangers on, and her mentees resort to next in Bartz' hands? What can Bartz possibly have in mind for the ending? Because of this, the book is a fast read and one that is hard to put down. As I consumed the last page and closed the covers, however, it already felt like something I had read in the past before moving on to better fare.

§ Sharon Mensing, retired educational leader, lives, reads, and enjoys the outdoors in Arizona.

Reviewed by Sharon Mensing, February 2023

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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