Book Review: The Project by Courtney Summers
By Doreen SheridanFebruary 2, 2021
From Courtney Summers, the New York Times bestselling author of the 2019 Edgar Award Winner and breakout hit, Sadie, comes a sensational follow-up—another pulls-no-punches thriller about an aspiring young journalist determined to save her sister from a cult.
When Bea Denham is 19 years old, her parents die in a car crash that nearly takes the life of her beloved younger sister Lo, as well. Her only other living relative, Aunt Patty, is the stiff upper lip sort of person and expects Bea to pull herself together for Lo’s sake. Feeling helpless and alone, Bea meets a man in the hospital who not only promises to save Lo’s life but also offers Bea the comfort she desperately needs:
Bea is tired of the hospital, where Lo is angry and in pain and there is nothing she can do and she makes no difference. She’s tired of Patty’s reproach, the expectation that Bea’s sense of duty be greater than her own need. And then there’s Lev on the phone, nearly every night, reminding her of the work ahead and how incomplete it would be without her, how essential she is to the fight. They need her ferocity, her impulsiveness and her beautiful, unselfish heart. It makes Bea feel like she can breathe to hear that, and she makes him say it to her over and over again. Patty and Lo, they both look at Bea like she’s selfish.
God wouldn’t choose someone selfish. God is infallible, he tells her.
Lev Warren is the founder of The Unity Project, a leftist religious organization that eschews church hierarchy in order to bring the word of God to the people. When Lo is finally discharged from the hospital—still in pain and with a porous memory that wounds Bea deeply—Patty takes over her care. Bea, feeling adrift, enters the Project’s fold and swiftly disappears from society.
Six years later, Lo has recovered, gotten her GED, and snagged what she thought was her dream job working for the famed investigative reporter Paul Tindale:
The New York Times asked him about what his work meant to him and what his life meant because of his work and he’d answered, You know, I don’t have a kid or a partner. My work is how I make myself permanent in other people’s lives and I only write what’s real and what’s true because the truth endures. The closer you get to the bone, the less you can be denied.
It was the first thing I’d come across after the accident that made me feel like my life could mean anything. I wrote, loved to write, it was the one thing that survived the wreck–and that revelation, that I could use my writing to be real here, to matter here…and then to have Paul Tindale himself hand-pick me out of his lecture…
It all seemed so fucking fated.
Unfortunately, being Paul’s assistant does not mean actually getting to write anything for their publication, SVO. Frustrated by her lack of opportunity, Lo begins to secretly investigate a suicide she witnessed. Jeremy Lewis was a stranger who spoke cryptically to her shortly before jumping off the train they’d both boarded. She tried to put the incident out of her mind till his grieving father, a close friend of Paul’s, publicly asserts that The Unity Project had something to do with Jeremy’s death. Lo long since reconciled herself to the fact that she lost her sister to The Project, but Arthur’s grief and anger spark in her a fresh need to track Bea down, and perhaps uncover the truth behind an organization sometimes hailed as a godsend but just as often derided—even by her own publication—as a cult.
Putting herself back on The Project’s radar will see Lo confronting her past once more, as she peels away at her own protective layers in the process of finding and hopefully reconciling with Bea. The more she digs, the more she discovers, not only of the shocking truth about her sister’s life but also the deepest secrets of an opaque religious order seemingly touched by the miraculous.
I admired the craft Courtney Summers brought to this story, layering symmetries in the dual point-of-view narratives to gracefully build a satisfying whole. Lo’s commitment to writing struck a chord, as did the Rashomon-style framing of the sisters’ past. The ambiguity with which The Project was described was also very deftly done, even as I had to remind myself that Bea and Lo were each vulnerable 19-year-olds during their viewpoint chapters and so should be cut some slack for their very terrible choices. Ms. Summers is both honest and empathetic in writing about young women who want to be chosen, who feel scorned by the people they meet in everyday life so seek the validation that places like The Project, with its promise of a social utopia. My one gripe is that I’m just so tired of the current political climate and how it demands that I feel sorry and make allowances for people who make bad choices that damage those they claim to love the most. Do I blame The Project for evoking the same emotions? No. But I would probably have enjoyed this more if we were living in more stable times. At the end of the day, this novel is both illuminating and a worthwhile tale of redemption and sisterhood against all odds.