The Weekend Retreat: A Novel

  • By Tara Laskowski
  • Graydon House
  • 352 pp.
  • Reviewed by Willem Marx
  • December 21, 2023

This engaging whodunit embraces familiar tropes to great effect.

The Weekend Retreat: A Novel

Tara Laskowski’s latest mystery, The Weekend Retreat, is a satisfying fusion of family drama and classic suspense. Unfolding over a long, stormy weekend at the tabloid-plagued Van Ness family’s Upstate New York vineyard, the novel joins a recent spurt of dramas exploring the dark underbelly of today’s wealthy elite (à la HBO’s “Succession”). While certainly not breaking new ground, genre conventions here are woven into a tight, glossy architecture. Passions rise, secrets are revealed, and as predictable as the steadily approaching thunder, mayhem will disrupt the Van Ness twins’ opulent birthday party.

In alternating first-person-narrated chapters, we are introduced to Harper Van Ness, the acerbic younger twin of the family; Elle Van Ness, the people-pleasing wife of Harper’s twin brother, Richard; and Lauren Brady, a freelance journalist and girlfriend of Zach, the youngest of the Van Ness siblings. Their stream-of-consciousness accounts present overlapping facts and scenes, generating a sense of claustrophobia as well as deep miscommunication. Each has a litany of private grievances that serves as a clever means of delivering the story’s exposition.

Harper and Elle were once colleagues and good friends, but ever since Elle married into the family, unknown circumstances have left them at one another’s throats. Lauren and Zach have been together for a matter of months, but their relationship is racing forward. As she realizes how serious things are, Lauren is overwhelmed by a gnawing sense of guilt. What is she withholding? In addition, the women harbor serious doubts about their (varyingly two-dimensional) male partners.

Rest assured that the loose threads which proliferate in the first three-quarters of the story will be tied up by the end. This is a tidy book, framed by two “breaking news” reports that dispel any doubts regarding its conclusion. A big storm will come; the power will be knocked out; the roads will flood; there will be murders; and at least one family member will die. All this is revealed on page one.

A fourth perspective — that of a nameless character plotting to harness the weather and the twins’ birthday gathering in order to execute some sinister event — weaves the narrative together and is the only voice that’s tonally distinct. While Harper’s, Elle’s, and Lauren’s thoughts are rendered in similar, conveniently plot-driven paragraphs, the fourth narrator has an eerie habit of leaving a few cryptic thoughts dangling on the page. The texture, which is somewhere between AI and a lunatic, creates the book’s most haunting lines:

“We feel so secure inside our spaces. The twist of a lock, the pull of a drape, brings an illusion of security. And yet, there’s not much dividing us from them. Me from you.
Not much at all.
A delicious shiver runs through me.”

Contrary to what you might expect from a novel written entirely in the first person, character development and psychological insights are absent or tertiary here at best. The four narrators rehash what become familiar grievances, circle around their unarticulated secrets, and reliably propel the plot forward. Their inner thoughts feel more like a performance than an intimate conversation, and the suspension of disbelief is required to imagine these people are so cagey and orchestrated within the confines of their own minds as to keep their secrets unarticulated until the proper time.

The fact that they speak in the present tense creates another jarring contrast. Even when chaos ensues, the stream-of-consciousness narration remains fluent and level-headed. Clearly, these characters were designed in a workmanlike fashion that serves the plot rather than imbuing it with authenticity.

Laskowski makes several risky forays into contemporary politics — including commenting on the adverse effects of social media and the double standard women face in the corporate world — but these interventions are quickly walked back in favor of the comfortable intricacies of family grudges. In short, this novel, a mystery-as-well-oiled-machine, glides over whatever rough patches and nuances might upset the fictional conceit. It’s this adherence to familiar tropes that makes The Weekend Retreat an entertaining read.

Willem Marx is a writer, translator, and teacher from Brooklyn by way of Vicenza. His work can be found in Publishers Weekly, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. He is an assistant fiction editor at Asymptote, reads poetry for Electric Literature’s the Commuter, and writes for himself.

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