Courtney Summers is an author known for her biting commentary on one aspect of modern culture. In her latest novel, The Project, she tackles those who prey on the grieving and the lost. She does so with her trademark precision and emotion-laden prose.
The Project flips between two sisters, past and present. Bea tells her story in the past, remembering the birth of her sister as well as the tragic accident that killed their parents and endangered her sister’s life. From there, we see how Lev Warren and The Unity Project fill the void left by her parents and assuage the rage and guilt she feels after the accident.
Lo’s story is in the present, five years after the accident, at which time she just wants to talk to her sister again and make a name for herself as a journalist. Witnessing a suicide one morning on her way to work is the catalyst for everything that follows, as the grieving father insists The Unity Project, the very same organization that seemingly swallowed her sister without a trace, is at fault for his son’s suicide. What follows is an emotional cat-and-mouse game wherein you begin to question The Project, Lo, Bea, and everything else.
Your confusion stems from the fact that The Project is not inherently evil. Their entire purpose, at least on paper, is to cater to the needs of those living without – opening up centers for the homeless and destitute, offering a place of refuge for teens with no other place to go. Their entire business plan is to help others, and they do so without pontificating or without requiring anything from those seeking their services. It is difficult to find fault with any organization so devoted to helping those in need.
This help even extends to Lo, who, we discover, never properly dealt with the trauma of her accident and her sister’s abandonment. As she dives deeper into the organization and meets with Lev Warren, founder and head of The Project, she begins to undercover her longing for love, support, and family. Except, as Lo begins to understand The Project’s attraction, readers learn from Bea’s story that The Project has a darker side.
The Project is a novel that certainly keeps you guessing as to The Project’s real intentions. Your feelings about it shift as much as Lo’s does. This lack of a villain leaves you off-balance and uncomfortable as you search for a source of your unease.
While not as bitter as some of Ms. Summers’ previous novels, The Project makes up for it in emotion. Lo is truly a tragic figure, abandoned by her only remaining family member at the same time she must come to grips with losing her parents. The scars from that accident are not just physical but cleave to her identity in a way that not even she realizes. At the same time, we understand Bea’s need to escape, to seek solace in a higher purpose, to make sense of her world which so suddenly and violently changed. Both sisters must deal with survivor’s remorse, and you are simply along for the ride.
The Project is Ms. Summers’ answer to the oft-asked question of how someone would voluntarily enter a cult-type organization. Through Bea and Lo, we see the appeal. However, just like with the sisters, Ms. Summers helps us understand that when it comes to cults, there are no easy answers.