3.5 star, YA

Review: The Project by Courtney Summers

Lo Denham is used to being on her own. After her parents died in a tragic car accident, her sister Bea joined the elusive community called The Unity Project, leaving Lo to fend for herself. Desperate not to lose the only family she has left, Lo has spent the last six years trying to reconnect with Bea, only to be met with radio silence.

When Lo’s given the perfect opportunity to gain access to Bea’s reclusive life, she thinks they’re finally going to be reunited. But it’s difficult to find someone who doesn’t want to be found, and as Lo delves deeper into The Project and its charismatic leader, she begins to realize that there’s more at risk than just her relationship with Bea: her very life might be in danger.

As she uncovers more questions than answers at each turn, everything Lo thought she knew about herself, her sister, and the world is upended. One thing doesn’t change, though, and that’s what keeps her going: Bea needs her, and Lo will do anything to save her.

From Courtney Summers, the New York Times bestselling author of the 2019 Edgar Award Winner and breakout hit Sadie, comes her electrifying follow-up—a suspenseful, pulls-no-punches story about an aspiring young journalist determined to save her sister no matter the cost.

This book is everything Courtney Summers has attempted to do for her audience: make them think without judging at first glance. The Project follows a hardened protagonist, Lo Denham, who has been orphaned in an accident that left her with physical (and plenty of emotional) scars. The further loss of her older sister Bea has pushed her more into this impenetrable shell that won’t easily let anything in.

The only thing that seems to wake her up is her pursuit of a story about the group her sister ended up in. The Project. On the surface level, seems like a good group who does a lot of charity work (ie. Giving food and a warm shelter to those who are down on their luck, even if they’re not so poor off enough for city sanctioned help) and helps their members with becoming better versions of themselves – aka more altruistic and in touch with their spiritual faith.

Sounds somewhat nice, right? People coming together as a family to help one another, give support, stand in the gaps where society fails them. I mean, aren’t all those things good?

Then comes the spiritual aspect that definitely sends red flag sensors on everywhere. I’m Christian so the biblical references make sense to me, but the way they’ve been twisted to make sense in their leader’s vision had me shocked. I came into this not knowing what to expect but the more I read about Lev, the charismatic leader and apparent Redeemer of the world’s sins, and what he was to everyone, I could see the pull he had as everything he said and did lulled the initial red flags.

Lo’s voice helped a lot. She mirrored my initial skepticism, the curiosity about what drew Bea in and whether they really were culprits of certain past member’s untimely demise (as in, their deaths). But with her own brokenness living in her every day, the remnants of her accident and the remaining trauma she couldn’t let go of, seeing it through her eyes I could understand the draw of community and faith in this sense to stitch the raw wounds closed. Even though I don’t think I would’ve felt and done exactly all that she did, a part of me wonders maybe it’s not so black and white. And that tells me how great a narrative this was to have me even ponder for a moment what it would’ve been like to be in her shoes.

Flashbacks from Bea’s own journey to The Project were also great, filling in the blanks we have about what happened to her at the time of Lo’s accident. How could she leave her sister alone? Why would she join a cult when she still had family? I liked the slow unfolding progression that allowed us to answer these questions in time on our own, in a way that wasn’t necessarily straightforward or blunt. Because the answer is neither. It’s more complex than a one-sentence statement could offer.

All in all, this was a deeply thought provoking journey that had me questioning who was good, who was not, and what exactly was The Project. I don’t necessarily understand all the feelings it’s invoked in me but I think that’s exactly the point. And so, likewise, this rating is neither super glowingly amazing nor angrily awful, reflecting that middle ground I can’t seem to put into adequate words. But if this entices you, I’d say give this one a read. It may not be for everyone, but it definitely will be memorable.

Overall Recommendation:

The Project is a reflective, thought provoking novel about a girl searching for the truth behind her sister’s dive into a cult-like group, leaving her alone after a horrific accident. I loved Lo’s voice and perspective, from initial skepticism about the group, to the temptation of being loved and supported, to contemplation of what it all meant to her. While I haven’t read much on cults before, I think Courtney Summers did an amazing job navigating the emotional side of charismatic leaders and groups that draw broken people in without judgment. It allows us to see for ourselves, leaving me with a lot to think about. This may not be the kind of read for everyone, but for those who do decide to pick it up, it will carry an impression long after it’s done.

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