Snowstorms, and Elks, and Bears; Oh My: A Review of The Retreat by Elisabeth de Mariaffi
Hello and welcome to Reading Has Ruined My Life. If you are new here, hi, hello, my name is Hannah and I will be your guide as we journey into the woods during a massive snow storm. I promise, I won’t sacrifice you to a bear…maybe.
This week I once again bring you a review courtesy of Novel Suspects’ Insider’s Club. They aren’t paying me for my review, they just sent me the book for free. So a big thank you goes out to Mulholland Books for sending me an advanced readers copy of The Retreat by Elisabeth de Mariaffi which goes on sale Tuesday, July 20th.
So what is The Retreat about? Well let me tell ya. But first a spoiler alert is in order. This book also requires a trigger warning as it deals with an abusive, both physical and mental, relationship that involves stalking. Gaslighting also plays a large role in this book so pick it up at your own risk.
Synopsis time now. The Retreat follows a woman by the name of Maeve. Maeve is finally out an abusive marriage and on her own for the first time in roughly a decade. So she arrives at the High Water Center for the Arts, a lovely, secluded place nestled high up in the mountains, in order to do one thing: begin her own dance company.
What should be a nice, quiet two-week retreat up into the mountains turns to disaster with the sudden appearance of a massive snowstorm, followed by a giant avalanche, that cuts High Water Center off from the outside world. The days begin to pass with no rescue or hope in sight. The other guests at High Water Center are at each other’s throats. The temperature continues to drop both inside and out. Food is running low. And, slowly but surely, strange deaths befall the others. Soon Maeve realizes how little she knows about those she’s with, and how little she can trust them.
The hook has me sold. Is it anything new or never before done? No. But I love a good locked-room mystery. I love trying to figure out who the killer is; it’s one of my favorite things in the whole world. This book also has another of my other favorite things: wavering sanity.
Is anyone surprised by that considering this locked-room mystery takes place high in the mountains during a snowstorm? Absolutely not. Does this add to the story though? A thousand percent yes. Especially where the main character is concerned.
On her own, Maeve is a very bland character, she’s not very interesting. She doesn’t become an interesting character until the end when her sanity comes into question, she realizes she can’t trust anyone, and she goes into survival mode. She makes for a good final girl, a little cut-and-dry, but still a good final girl. At the start of the novel though, her focus is solely on building her dance company and providing for her young kids; she could care less about the others at High Water. And I think that detracts from the story.
Since this novel is written from a first-person point of view, and Maeve is that character, readers don’t learn anything about the supporting cast until it’s too late. It would have been more satisfying had Maeve spent more time getting to know and trust the others before the climax of the novel. Then when small, unexplained things happen to her, there could have been more questioning if Maeve had done said thing or had someone else. It could have added to the wavering sanity the snowstorm brings forth. It would have made the back stabbing and trust breaking more poignant. Still a fan of having her question if she’s losing her mind though; it just could have been done a little better.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: Hannah, what’s up with those janky transitions in those last two paragraphs? They’re terrible! Truthfully, I don’t know. I’ve been staring at the above passages for about two days and I can’t come up with anything better; I’m very blocked right now. But it all works out for the next point I have: bad transitions.
In all fairness, it is hard to say if the following is a true issue with the novel since I have an ARC. The following could be something that has been fixed by the time the novel is released. But as it stands now, there are multiple times in the first third of the novel where there is a quick shift in subject matter. For instance, another character could be having a conversation with Maeve, and then she’s suddenly thinking of bears and I don’t know how we got there.
This issue only seems to happen in the beginning of the novel. By the time the mystery is in full swing, things seem to be streamlined. No sharp left turns to be found during the climax or rising tension.
At this point, I am nearly done writing this review and I have yet to bring up the mystery. This is again much like the book. De Mariaffi created a slow burn of a thriller. A very slow burn. Like seriously slow. No one died until over two-thirds of the way through. Nothing really happened until two-thirds of the way through if I’m being quite honest.
De Mariaffi spent a lot of time, and time well spent, building up the isolated world around the characters. She spent time making sure every reader becomes well aware of how isolated and helpless the characters would be if the worst happened. And while I’m not mad at the world building and suspense that was done, I would have liked something to occur earlier. The pacing did not go from zero to a hundred real quick; it went more like thirty-five to a hundred real quick. It could have been evened out a little more.
I know it sounds like I didn’t care much for this one based on what I’ve said so far, but that’s not true. I did enjoy The Retreat. It took my mind away from the real world for a day or two. And as I mentioned at the beginning of the post, it has one of my favorite troupes with the wavering sanity of the characters. Seriously, every single character has lost part of their mind by the end and I greatly appreciate it. It makes the book feel real and raw.
I also greatly appreciated how much de Mariaffi tested my skills as an armchair detective.
Without giving too much away, let’s just say that I got the final surviving trio right...but I kept going back and forth about who I thought the killer was.
Both characters, who shall remain nameless, are very well done, and there were many reasons that could have made either one the killer. I kept jumping back and forth between who I thought was a red herring and who was the actual villain. How dare you do this to me, Elisabeth de Mariaffi! I need to make up my mind about who the killer is by the halfway point of the novel so I can either boast about my great detective skills or be highly disappointed in myself. I couldn’t do that, Elisabeth, I couldn’t because you wrote two pretty good villain possibilities. Five points in this book’s favor.
Overall, The Retreat is another serviceable thriller to read during these hot summer months. Again, is this book something that has never been done before? No, I can go to a book store and find multiple thrillers just like it. But, overall, it is a well done mystery.
And with that, I must bid you adieu. Next week will have a review of another new release that I’ve been very excited for. Seriously, I was counting down the days for my pre-order to arrive. Stay tuned! Until next time, stay safe, wash your hands, wear a mask if you aren’t yet vaccinated, and read some good books for me.