The Project by Courtney Summers
Lo Denham is used to being on her own. After her parents died, Lo’s sister, Bea, joined The Unity Project, leaving Lo in the care of their great aunt. Thanks to its extensive charitable work and community outreach, The Unity Project has won the hearts and minds of most in the Upstate New York region, but Lo knows there’s more to the group than meets the eye. She’s spent the last six years of her life trying—and failing—to prove it.
When a man shows up at the magazine Lo works for claiming The Unity Project killed his son, Lo sees the perfect opportunity to expose the group and reunite with Bea once and for all. When her investigation puts her in the direct path of its leader, Lev Warren and as Lo delves deeper into The Project, the lives of its members it upends everything she thought she knew about her sister, herself, cults, and the world around her—to the point she can no longer tell what’s real or true. Lo never thought she could afford to believe in Lev Warren . . . but now she doesn’t know if she can afford not to.
DISCLAIMER: I received an eARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
EXPECTED FEBRUARY 2ND, 2021
The Project is a Courtney Summers book, which means you know it’s going to hurt you.
And from the first moments it does. With two estranged sisters, dead parents, accusations of cult activity, and a dreary sense of grief raining over it all, it could seem like it’s too much. Like it’s too grim, too fast.
But because this is a Courtney Summers book, it’s a book that times every punch exquisitely, taking you on a 350-odd page ride through grief and hope and every fragile emotion in between. It’s dark, there’s no doubt, and it covers topics that simply cannot be approached lightly. And at the very same time, it finds a light, whether it’s from a blaze of anger or a glimmer of hope on the horizon.
And this time, at the center of it all, is Lo Denham, an aspiring journalist. Lo Denham, a girl who lost her parents to a car wreck. Lo Denham, who wants to prove that her sister abandoned her for a cult.
It’s amazing how Lo fills every inch of this book, and yet fights for space from beneath Lev Warren’s long shadow.
Normally, two characters competing for page time might seem fraught, even poorly written. But Lev Warren, founder and leader of the Unity Project, casts a very long shadow, and Lo’s life has spun out in that shadow since her sister abandoned her for the Unity Project’s promises. Instead of creating a disjointed sense of character space, for lack of a better term, it builds tension instead. Everything Lo does is to pull back the curtain on the cult that took Bea away, so without the Unity Project, without Lev Warren towering over her life, who is she really?
Of course, she’s not any less interesting for leading such a life. Her experiences have made her sharp and independent, unafraid to ask the hard questions until she finds the truth. She’s nineteen, she’s pretty much on her own, and she refuses to let anyone dictate her path. Does it make her hard-headed and bad at taking good advice? Sure. But does it make perfect sense, does it make her such a real, grounded, believable character? Oh, absolutely.
Of course, Lo’s steadfast nature did make a late-book plot point seem a little strange, even abrupt, but that was one small hitch in an otherwise roaring, relentless story.
Of course, there are parts of The Project that feel predatory. Such is the nature of cults and their figureheads.
It’s impossible to get through this book without feeling discomfort and rage in roughly equal measure. Discomfort with the way cults prey on the vulnerable, the way men prey on young women, the way religion preys on the hopeless. But rage with all of these things, too, rage because people are so unwilling to see the corruption because of a few otherwise good deeds performed to act as a screen.
I spent the entire time reading on the edge of my seat, wondering what it would take to make things right. Wondering if things could be made right. How do you find justice when you have to prove there’s evil behind all the miscellaneous good deeds the rest of the world sees?
And every now and again, The Project makes you wonder if there is any kind of evil at work. Of course there is, there always is, but isn’t that the nature of cults, the power of them, to suggest that all is well? I’m in awe of but also terrified of how smoothly Courtney Summers manages to balance the two. She makes the path to the truth a slippery one, more dangerous with every step, and it’s ruthlessly engaging.
If you’re looking to hold your breath while your heart breaks, The Project might be for you.
Certainly check out the content warnings below before you start, since there are many, but give The Project your time all the same. It’s sharp, it’s gutting, it’s all too real, and it’s worth every minute spent on every page.
It’s also hitting shelves on February 2nd, which means you don’t have to wait long to get your hands on a copy! Place your pre-orders or library requests soon if you’re able, and in no time, you’ll be able to join Lo Denham in investigating the Unity Project.
CW: medical scenes, sexual assault, loss of a loved one, suicide, child abuse, child death, drug use, addiction, self-harm, nudity, sex scenes (non-graphic), violence