Books about the writing world are catnip to me. Combine that with one of my favourite genres, the psychological thriller, and I am the perfect audience for this inventive, twisted story about success, creativity, and the limits of both.
30-year-old Alex has ‘risen up the ranks from bleakly underpaid editorial assistant to bleakly underpaid associate editor.’ She had been working on her own writing, but since a catastrophic fall out with her best friend Wren (the circumstances of which are slowly revealed to us), she’s had impenetrable writer’s block. Seeing other friends in her writers’ circle garner mainstream success is a difficult pill to swallow.
‘A hungry, wolfish feeling reared up in my gut. What would it feel like to hold your own book in your hands for the fist time? For it to be a physical object, a thing that people paid for?’
Alex and Wren had bonded over their shared love for kooky author Roza Vallo, known for her deliciously dark novels that push the boundaries of genre. A series of fortunate events land Alex a spot at Roza’s much-coveted writing retreat in her remote 19th-century mansion in upstate New York. The only problem is, Wren will also be there, and Alex doesn’t know how she’ll manage being in such close proximity to her ex-best-friend, under such claustrophobic and high-stakes circumstances.
Because this is no ordinary writing retreat. The five young women chosen will each have to complete a full manuscript during their time at the mansion (which was, coincidentally, the historical site of two mysterious and brutal deaths). One will be chosen for an eye-wateringly big publishing deal at the end. And Roza, they discover, has a darkness both on and off the page, enjoying her mind games in the name of sparking their creativity. From the start, her unpredictability is what keeps the writers – and the reader – on the edge of their seat.
‘Her jeans had a large tear and skin showed through like a bone poking through flesh.’
The atmosphere is spellbinding as the writers begin to work under the extreme pressure to perform – and when a major snowstorm cuts off transport and communication to the mansion, well, any seasoned thriller reader will know that this is when things get really hairy.
So yes, I loved it – mostly. The first quarter, this was a five-star read for me. Things lost momentum a little during the middle, and the end went a little nuts (as psychological thrillers are wont to do). I also wasn’t as keen on the passages interspersed in the narrative showing Alex’s own writing – it took me out of the ‘now’ of the novel and I felt myself skimming past to get to the meat of the story. But overall, it is fresh and original, with three-dimensional characters and a complex exploration of friendship, trauma, sexuality, and the promise and pitfalls of literary fame.
Many thanks to Atria/Emily Bestler Books for the advanced reader’s copy. The Writing Retreat will be published in February 2023.