Three months ago I finished Courtney Summers’ latest novel The Project and am still emotionally devastated. I literally needed so much time to recover and piece my heart back together before I could write this review. In short: Courtney Summers is back to destroy you, and you’ll thank her for it after.
About The Project
Publisher: Wednesday Books | Release Date: February 2, 2021 | Pages: 352
Genre: Young Adult, Thriller | Format: eARC | Source: Publisher*
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abuse, allusions to sexual abuse, branding, car accident, cults, death of parents, gaslighting, grooming, loss of a loved one, mentions of car accident, mentions of self-harm, premature birth, suicide, torture, toxic work environment panic attack, violence
My Review of The Project
I’m in literal tears that I was chosen (to receive an eARC) and experience this devastation early. It’s been three months since I read this and am still processing, which in itself says quite a bit. The Project is a compelling exploration into the world of cults and centers on the relationship between two sisters. You will love Bea and Lo, and you will cry. A lot.
“Having a sister, mom says, is a place only the two of them will share, made of secrets they never have to say aloud – but if they did, it would be in a language only the two of them could speak. Having a sister is a promise no one but the two of you can make – and no one but the two of you can break.”
The writing is like coming home; there’s something comfortable and safe about opening a new Courtney Summers book, and I think that’s what makes the devastation that much more crushing. The Project captures this feeling of comfortable foreboding well, and it’s that knowledge that Summers enjoys destroying her readers that I feel so connected to them. They feel real and raw, and I find myself gripped by the story and reading the whole book in one sitting.
Everything feels important and the pacing never suffers from this intricately woven thriller. Told in dual timelines and perspectives, The Project chronicles Bea in the past after the accident and follows Lo in the present as she tries to find Bea years after her disappearance.
“I want to hear what answers could tempt sisters away from sisters, tempt lost boys in front of oncoming trains.”
The juxtaposition between the sisters’ closeness in the past and the current estrangement is heartbreaking and unsettling. What caused their falling out? Where did Bea go and where is she now? I came to love these sisters so fiercely and intimately.
The amount of research on cults that Summers conducted in crafting this novel is apparent. But it’s also a little unsettling because she uses recent historical moments in the US like Occupy and Trump’s election to show how a group like The Unity Project could grow and appear as a lifeline to the downtrodden. People who are looking for a place to belong and not suffer. To have a purpose. The Project not only looks at how and why people join cults, but the charismatic leader at the top. The best villains are so nuanced that you fall into their gravitational pull despite knowing better, and Lev Warren is so charismatic that I almost wanted to join the Unity Project. I really found myself torn between Lo’s feelings of mistrust and hatred and genuinely digging his message. Because let’s be real: I’d totally join a hippie commune.
“Warren’s New Theory of Atonement and Redemption, which posits the sins of humanity have cut us off from God’s grace, and the collective good works of The Project will atone for our sins and bring salvation to the ends of the earth.”
Where do you draw the line between a cult and a new religion? Summers goes deep in the exploration of cults and how it is people join them. When you look at religions from a scholarly perspective, any new religion is looked at as weird or cult-like and counter to the “true teachings”. It takes some time for a new religion to gain its footing, followers, and respectability. And we all know that this book is about cults and it won’t end well (because Courtney Summers lives on reader’s’ heartbreak), but it is interesting to consider the other side. What if it was just a hippie commune out to make the world a better place?
“Where is the line between what circumstances have turned you into and what you choose to be?”
At its heart, The Project really explores trauma and how we move forward. Lo’s experienced so much heartbreak and trauma in her 19 years from the loss of both her parents and almost dying in that same car accident, to her sister’s abandonment, to her toxic work environment. How the things which broke her also gave her strength in a way, but also how we are more than just the trauma we’ve experienced. This is mirrored with a look at places of trauma and how quickly life returns to normal.
One thing I personally want to expand on is Lo and her toxic work environment. With aspirations of becoming a writer and telling stories, she took an assistant position with rising star Paul in the hopes of learning the ropes and advancing her career. The Project basically begins the present narrative a year after starting the job and begins to pitch stories to write (her actual career goal) and learn from her would-be mentor, but Paul is anything but supportive. As a woman who faced similar roadblocks to her career, I was so thankful to see the depiction of this toxic work environment and all the gaslighting that Lo experienced. It normalized my experiences in a way that nothing else has, and I’m not only thankful for myself but also other young adults who can see potential warning signs and see the complisults for what they are.
“If you tell a story – something real, something true – you get to be alive in other people. And writing feels like the most… the greatest chance I’ll ever have at being – alive.”
Overall, The Project surpassed my already high expectations and this is a book I’d recommend to readers who enjoy thrillers and stories centered on sister relationships. This book will make you feel things, then will break you, and then you will thank it.
* I have since purchased a final copy for my personal collection.
Recommended if you enjoyed…
Other Books by Courtney Summers
Have you read The Project or do you plan to?
If you were to join a cult, what would suck you in?