February 19, 2021

The Project

Written by Courtney Summers
Wednesday Books (St. Martin's Press)
352 pp.
Ages 12+
February 2021
In 2011, when Lo is just 13 years of age, she is critically injured in a car crash that kills her parents. Her 19-year-old sister Bea is called to the hospital and, in the chapel, begs for a miracle and Lev Warren appears. The miracle happens for Lo but Bea disappears from her life, leaving Lo in the care of their great aunt Patty.

Six years later, Lo knows Bea has joined Lev Warren's The Unity Project, an organization whose mission is to do good works to atone for all sins and bring salvation. After an earlier exposé investigating The Project as a cult, Lev has tried to keep The Project out of the media, focusing on their community work and annual public sermon. But, now working for SOV magazine, Lo is drawn to look into the organization again. While she has tried numerous times to reconnect with Bea, she is always kept away by Casey Byers, The Project's spokesperson and Lev's right hand. But Lo's interest is piqued by the death of a young man, Jeremy Lewis, whose father Arthur had been trying to save his son from The Unity Project. When Lo sees Bea in the photos Arthur's private investigator took of Jeremy, coupled with numerous voiceless calls she receives, Lo is determined to find Bea and learn more about The Project.

Alternating between the past and the present, primarily over seven years, Lo and Bea's stories unfold with Bea looking to prove herself worthy of a miracle she believes Lev performed and Lo looking for her sister. Their stories are eerily parallel, especially under the charismatic Lev who has become father, friend, therapist and even saviour to members of The Project. Both sisters are bereft because of their losses of family but each feels compelled to action because of The Project. But, it would seem, The Project has other things in mind.

Everyone should be prepared for an unnerving read in The Project. By balancing family and everyday living with the extremes of manipulation and doctrine, it's Courtney Summers at her best. Like her award-winning Sadie (2018), The Project is chilling in its possibilities because this could be someone's reality. A tragic accident, absolute faith in an irresistible leader, family estrangement, a compelling mission and the need for connection could all be elements of any of our lives and with her storytelling Courtney Summers will disquiet readers with the possibilities.

While her plotting is always sophisticated and involved, never leading the reader to a predictable ending, it's Courtney Summers's atmospheric writing that is most captivating. There's a perennial sense of foreboding, even with the most mundane of circumstances, like grabbing a cab or working in an office. Courtney Summers never lets the reader relax and maybe we shouldn't because bad things happen, even if dressed up as good.
Lo, the writer, tells Lev that...
If you tell a story–something real, something true–you get to be alive in other people. (pg. 251)

Thankfully Courtney Summers is alive and well by virtue of The Project and all her other stories. She tells the truth, even if it's unsettling.

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