A Self-Aware, Self-Serving Mess

Author: Julia Bartz

Alex hasn’t been able to write for a year, not since she stopped being friends with Wren, since their disastrous, bloody split. Now, Wren is doing better than ever, and Alex is left alone, hopeless, watching her life devolve. What she needs is new scenery, an artistic opportunity, a creative impulse to rescue her.

Enter Roza Vallo, shocking feminist author icon. Roza’s known for not taking any shit and for writing darkly sexual, lesbian themed books that unravel the broken spaces between friendship and lust, all while sticking it to the patriarchy. Roza, in true extremist author fashion, has a secluded mansion and is inviting five women to come stay for a month-long writing retreat. Each of the women must write over 3,000 words a day, must meet one-on-one with Roza, and at the end of the retreat the winner will have a completed novel and a publishing deal. By circumstance, luck, and a little help from her friends, Alex will be one of these lucky women. The problem – her ex-bestie, Wren – is there too. Oh, and did I mention that people are starting to disappear, to die?

The Writing Retreat is lauded as a horror thriller with gothic undertones, a woke agenda, and some meta inferences about writing. Now, as a wanna-be writer and a book addict, you’d think books about books, about the writing life, would be my jam, but I’m usually wary. These sorts of books tend to be irritatingly aware, reveling in their own cleverness and references, and The Writing Retreat is no exception. There is no space for us to like the book, because it’s altogether too busy worshiping itself, its incipient praise focusing on an agenda that is just as trite as it is utterly uninteresting.

The book has two themes: sexuality and surprise. They make for a disjointed combination. Everything is happening at once, everything and the kitchen-sink is in the story, everything is over-the-top, everyone is overdramatic, and the author is trying too hard to push a point about sexuality at the same time she’s trying to surprise us with escalating unrealistic “got-cha” sequences. It’s a dumpster fire.

Image by Yerson Retamal from Pixabay

Let’s start with sex because the book does. We meet Roza through Alex’s love of the author’s first novel, an “erotic” story about two girls who are best friends and eventually become lovers . . . after one of the girls dies and comes back as a zombie. I mean. Yuck? These are two underage girls and . . . necrophilia? Need I say more. And we learn about this book within a book in the first chapter. I’m all for explicit books, but can we leave out the Night of the Loving Dead type of stuff? And yes, it’s a real book. And no, I’ve never read it, but like Human Centipede, I’ve heard plenty that leaves me shuddering.

Then . . .

Everyone in this story has some weird sexual tension with absolutely everyone else, from the befuddled Alex, who is just starting to explore her sexuality, to her fellow writers at the retreat. Is this a pubescent boy’s fantasy novel, because this hardly seems like an accurate or worthy depiction of female friendship and dynamics. Regardless of sexuality, not everyone appeals to everyone – unless they happen to be in this book. This narrow view destroys ideas of female friendship and even female-on-female enmity. For all the book’s self-satisfied “aren’t I complicated” vibes, it’s not. It’s disgustingly one dimensional, refusing to look beneath the surface at what drives people, even a group of people. Life is more than sex. Relationships are more than sex. Apparently, this character – Alex – is too self-centered and pleasure motivated to connect with anyone on any other level. I’m not empathetic and frankly, not interested in her or her other self-serving writing companions. Poorly executed. Oh, and did I mention that there is demon sex too in case the entire in-your-face focus of do-what-you-want-and-damn-everyone-else wasn’t quite clear enough.  Agenda seen and seen through.

Next, now that we’ve got the scintillating part of the review done, let’s talk about all these surprises, this backhanded homage to Misery that isn’t cutting it. None of this really makes sense, and as things escalate it gets even more out there. It’s not believable in the least. No one could get away with this, especially not with this apathetic level of concealment, and Roza’s scheme and her supposedly seductive appeal is just as bland as it is unexplained. The logical flaws are many, and the rapid-fire transition into a survival / action sequence doesn’t save the story from its own hubris and incomplete planning.

Overall, I don’t see what all the love and fuss is about. The Writing Retreat is a poorly done draft of a story or disjointed stories within stories, more agenda than actual narrative for the most part. When we do get to the reveal, towards the very end, it’s even more downhill, an unbelievable about face that tries too hard to be shocking and fails because of the sheer absurdity of the idea. The rapid-fire, let’s rush through this execution doesn’t hide the flaws or save the story, but at least it gets us to the ending faster. Not recommended.

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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