The Retreat by Sherri Smith

I would like to thank Sarah from Titan for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review

Publisher – Titan

Price - £7.99 paperback

Published – Out Now

CW – While I enjoyed this thriller’s approach to the subject please be aware this novel contains scenes addressing sexual abuse

Katie Manning was a beloved child until her mid-teens when her manager attacked and permanently scarred her face, effectively ending her career and sending her on a path of all-too-familiar post Hollywood self-destruction.

Now twenty-seven Katie wants a better answer to those clickbait “Where Are They Now?” articles that float around online. An answer she hopes to find when her brother’s too-good-to-be-true fiancée invites her to a wellness retreat upstate. Together with Katie’s two best friends – one struggling with crippling debt and family obligations, one running away from a failed job and relationship – Katie will try to find the inner peace promised at the tranquil retreat. But finding oneself just might drudge up more memories than Katie is prepared to deal with.

Each woman has come to the retreat for different reasons. Each has her own reasons to hide. And at the end of this weekend, only one will be left standing.

The concept of finding ourselves especially in this age of social media is one many of us share.  We wear our professional work mode, our social media self, our friends and family personas may all be real, but they are what we default to in certain situations – some positive and some less so. Juggling our various identities and trying not to show people we are stressed, or hurting is pressured but eventually our identifies will clash and we will show the sides of ourselves people will never have expected. In Sherri Smith’s The Retreat a group of four women with various ties go to get away from it all and in the process shock their companions with how far they’re willing to now reveal.

Katie manning was better known to American tv audiences as the child star of the teen detective show Shelby Spade. After 7 years and various merchandise sales she was attacked by her manager, scarred and has largely faded from view bar a recent twitter storm that got her in the news again for all the wrong reasons. She’d been coasting on drink, drugs and her slowly declining tv income while living in a house with her brother and his British fiancé Ellie. As part of the preparation for the wedding Ellie has asked Katie to accompany her to a health retreat focused on people finding themselves through various exercises culminating in an ancient Brazilian psychedelic drug to open the mind. Katie has agreed to come (secretly keen to get away from her demons) but has also invited two old college friends for what may be a girl’s weekend.  However, finding a place that forbids alcohol, hides phone and promotes exercise may not be the weekend they actually wanted.  Especially as amongst the guests are people with various secrets and agendas that will push them all to their limits.

I found this tale a really interesting character focused thriller. Our omnipotent narrator rotates each chapter through Katie, Ellie and Katie’s two friends Carmen and Ariel and we see how they are dealing with the retreat and the various strange guests and encounters that take place. What really impressed me was that the first quarter of the book sets up these characters and then over the course of the book we see them react completely differently when under pressure. I enjoyed Ellie who on the surface is this calm poised British woman fully in charge pf herself when seen by the others but when looking at events from her side she’s anxious; trying not to say what she really thinks and working hard to never let her British aloofness down. Both Carmen and Ariel initially seem superficial hangers on, but we slowly see that these two non-rich friends of Katie dealing with many more domestic challenges and each seeks their own form of escape.  The really interesting thing as we see these two characters change over the weekend is that we actually understand their motivations and reactions. We may not have chosen their eventual paths, but they make sense as they are true to the character.

But the stand-out element of the book is Katie herself.  While her teen persona was calm, feisty and always knew what to do Katie herself is very much living in the moment and seeking fast joy. She loves to shock, entertain and will go for the cheap laugh (usually at Ellie’s expense) add in her social media disaster and she would usually be the type of celebrity we quickly shake our heads at and turn the page of the magazine to avoid but Smith has done a fine job of balancing that side with a secret hidden self that Katie herself may not be fully aware of. That is a Katie seeking peace, a way to change and possibly even redeem herself?  As her weekend goes from bad to worse, she has to confront her past and its not a pleasant journey of self-discovery and finding out the secrets she has hidden from herself is one of the most disturbing and stark parts of the novel.

Smith is very good at ramping up the tension. This is partly the other mysterious guests and staff at the retreat from the very tactile Dr Dave who runs the facility to Lily who turns out to have always loved Shelby Spade and wants to become Katie’s best friend.  Little weird events start to push the women into exploring the retreat and its secrets and slowly its very clear several people are not who we thought they were. This really pushes the narrative and suggests several potential ways the situation can end and so the finale is not obvious but I do think there may possibly have been one too many plot threads trying to be resolved at once so the very last few scenes felt more rushed rather than a perfectly timed crescendo of revelations but the ride to get to that stage was well-crafted.

This is well paced modern-day thriller with a neat focus on character and not afraid to have unsympathetic characters as the leads but actually make the reader understand them.  Throw in the too perfect retreat itself and it’s a pressure cooker thriller slowly making everything ready to explode in unforeseen ways.  I think if a good beach thriller for your holidays is required you would be very satisfied to pick this up although you may be more suspicious of your fellow guests…