Book Review: The Retreat by Sherri Smith
The Retreat by Sherri Smith illuminates the dark side of the self-care and wellness industry in a thrilling ride of revenge that asks: how well do you really know your friends?
It’s passing rare for me to read a book and get so invested in the characters that I find myself silently bargaining with the author over their fates in my head. From the first few pages, you know that the four women at the heart of this novel have headed to the woods of upstate New York to spend time at a wellness retreat. You also learn that one of them is a killer intent on doing the others in. What you won’t know till well into this twisty book is who the killer is and why she’s so hellbent on murder.
As the book opens, you have former child star Katie, hiding from the world after a drunken tweet ruins her acting comeback. Ellie-Rose, her brother’s beautiful if uptight British fiancee, has suggested the retreat partly to help Katie dry out and partly as a bonding experience ahead of the wedding. Unable to face the idea of a weekend with just her and Ellie-Rose—even if the promise of ayahuasca tea proves too alluring to resist altogether—Katie invites her two best friends from college to come, too. Ariel is an advertising graduate whose inability to afford to live in New York City on the poorly paid internships necessary to advance her career sent her back to a dreary life in her midwestern hometown. Carmen was a pre-med student whose family circumstances forced her to drop out before getting her degree: now she works as a home aide so she can care for her younger siblings and her Parkinson’s-afflicted dad. All four women harbor secrets that will emerge with a criminal vengeance during a Memorial Day weekend that’s supposed to help heal them but will instead lead to a bloodbath that only one of them will survive.
Sherri Smith does an excellent job of rendering her characters such that they’re both vivid and relatable. They all do crazy, messed up things, but are, for the most part, likable characters just trying to muddle through as best they can in a world where the odds are stacked against them. This is especially true in Carmen’s case, as the cycle of poverty refuses to let her go:
Carmen felt like she were nine years old and back in the free swimming class offered to low-income families. How the instructor called the kids who’d passed to stand on the side and left the failures in the pool, half treading water, half drowning, looking up at them. Chlorinated water burning up their noses and eyes. Carmen did everything right to escape that pool, but there she was anyway. Poverty was like a serial killer at the end of a horror movie; just when she thought she’d gotten away, it popped up stronger, yielding an electric bill like a machete.
Ms. Smith’s shrewd evaluation of poverty is only one of the highlights of this intelligent, darkly humorous thriller. She’s unafraid to skewer the wellness industry as a whole, giving credit where it’s due but also highlighting both the abuses and the sheer absurdity of what’s essentially an unregulated, amorphous field that promises increased health and happiness if customers will only spend money and just try hard enough. Her eye for satire is nowhere sharper than when our murderer is taking a moment in her killing spree to practice some of the techniques promoted by the very retreat she’s on:
She rolled her eyes and pressed harder on the tree-branch, hoping she’d hear the conclusive snap of a windpipe and she’d finally get to move on. “Just die already,” she said in a tired voice, then at last, it was quiet. No more movement. She waited a beat to be sure she really finished the job this time. Even took a moment to mindfully appreciate the moonlit blood ooze and pool on the rocks, its inky beauty. The peaceful silence after death. Finally, she was living in the moment.
The Retreat is a truly absorbing thriller, written with both panache and heart. But even more impressive than the humor and the social awareness was the complex yet carefully and cunningly crafted mystery. The secrets and lies of each of our four leads unravel at just the right points in the narrative, leading to a fever pitch of revelations at the end where I was desperately rooting for one woman to succeed. I won’t tell you who as that would spoil the fun, but I will warn you not to get too attached despite how well Ms. Smith draws you into each personality. That said, even though the body count is high and only one of our sympathetic leads makes it out alive, this was still a deeply satisfying novel with a terrific ending, and one of the best books of the “friends on an isolated getaway” murder mystery subgenre I’ve ever read.