BookBrowse Reviews The Project by Courtney Summers

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The Project

by Courtney Summers

The Project by Courtney Summers X
The Project by Courtney Summers
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Feb 2021, 352 pages

    Paperback:
    Nov 21, 2023, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rachel Hullett
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In this suspenseful young adult novel, a 19-year-old aspiring journalist is determined to rescue her sister from the grip of a sinister cult.

Bea and Lo Denham are inseparable sisters until their parents die in a car crash that Lo narrowly survives. Bea, depressed and desperate after the accident, falls into the arms of The Unity Project, a religious community that embraces her as she abandons her sister to the care of their great aunt. Years later, alone in the world after the death of their aunt and working as a secretary for a prestigious journalist, 19-year-old Lo is determined to unmask The Unity Project for what she believes it to be: a cult that indoctrinated her unwitting sister.

Like Courtney Summers' previous young adult novel, the bestseller Sadie, The Project is strongly invested in a relationship between two sisters who have been torn apart by tragic circumstances. The novel opens with a prologue in which Bea witnesses the birth of her younger sister and is given the opportunity to name her. The narration then switches to Lo in the present day, but there are flashback chapters interspersed from Bea's perspective, narrating her early involvement with The Unity Project and its charismatic leader, Lev Warren. In the contemporary chapters, Lo resolves to write an exposé of The Unity Project, which no journalist to date has been able to prove is actually a cult. She hopes to rescue her sister while simultaneously proving herself at work to get promoted from secretary to staff writer.

The Project is an eerie, unsettling novel. The reader is drawn into Lev's charm along with Bea, but also into Lo's skepticism about the religious community he has built. This isn't the same sort of feverish page-turner as Sadie; it's a much more measured and contemplative book. The question of where Bea is haunts the novel, but otherwise, its mystery element is minimal. Instead, the novel concerns itself with broader questions of faith and trauma, and the often symbiotic relationship between the two. Lo's excavation of The Unity Project naturally does not quite go as planned: the closer she gets to Lev, the more she begins to doubt her own suspicions, and the reader follows her journey with a sort of muted horror.

The Project's weakest element is its uncertainty about its audience. Though ostensibly categorized as young adult with crossover appeal, the novel's themes and subject matter are perhaps better suited to an adult audience: teens can certainly read and enjoy this, but it's a marked departure for Summers — it's slower and quieter, its subject more mature — and perhaps she should have leaned into this a bit more. The result is a 19-year-old narrator dealing with problems that seem more typical for a woman in her 30s: namely dissatisfaction that her career isn't progressing at a good pace, which she confronts her boss about repeatedly and which he indulges, even though she was underqualified and under-experienced when she was hired. Where the young reader is meant to admire Lo for being headstrong and determined, to the adult reader she inadvertently comes off as immature in this element of the story. This effect could have been curbed if Lo had been written as several years older, working for the same prestigious company for the better part of a decade rather than merely a year.

Still, while this element occasionally detracts, on the whole it's an accomplished novel, and highly recommended to anyone interested in cult narratives or stories about familial loyalty and religious faith.

Reviewed by Rachel Hullett

This review first ran in the March 17, 2021 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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Beyond the Book:
  Cult Psychology

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