Book: “The Project” by Courtney Summers
Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, February 2021
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.
Book Description: 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.
“The Unity Project murdered my son.”
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 charismatic and mysterious leader, Lev Warren, he proposes a deal: if she can prove the worst of her suspicions about The Unity Project, she may expose them. If she can’t, she must finally leave them alone.
But as Lo delves deeper into The Project, the lives of its members, and spends more time with Lev, 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.
Welcome to The Unity Project.
Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!
Given how much I loved Courtney Summers’s previous novel “Sadie”, when I saw that her next book was going to be about a cult I was freakin’ stoked. The dark grittiness of “Sadie” kept me unsettled and on edge for a long while after finishing that book, and I figured that “The Project” would be almost darker, if only because of the root of the conflict (and because it sounded like it took a lot of inspiration from NXIVM from the summary, which is all kinds of yikes as more and more details come out about that group).
Once again we have a sister relationship that serves as the beating heart of this novel, a theme that Summers has used before and done very well. I had been a bit worried we’d get a bit more of the same because of it, but the relationship between Lo and Bea is very different from what I had imagined. I thought that Summers did a fantastic job of capturing the trauma and regret of both women, be it of Bea, who left her younger sister in a time of need, or Lo, who has resented the hole that Bea left behind but is also obsessed with finding her. You get both sisters perspectives, it it Lo’s journey as she goes deeper and deeper into The Unity Project, or Bea as she too finds herself drawn in more and more in a different time than Lo. The complexities of their relationship are there, and while we don’t see much interaction between them be it in the present or in flashbacks, you do get a good solid sense for the love and pain they share through their memories and feelings towards each other. It is also interesting seeing them take similar journeys when it comes to the mysterious, and perhaps deeply malevolent, Unity Project, and how they both parallel and yet invert each other. The suspense builds as Lo learns more and more about Bea’s time with Lev and other members, and by the time Lo is making some pretty drastic decisions (some of which I don’t think were QUITE built up to enough, but that’s all I will say because we’re keeping this generally spoiler free), you have been turned about and messed with as a reader about as much as she has as a character because she’s so easy to connect to. And while Bea is more mysterious, you still get a pretty good sense about other aspects of her personality, and how she could get caught up in something like The Project. While you know that things won’t be happily ever after for these sisters by the time the book is done, Summers still makes you ache for both of them on the journeys they are taking in trying to find, or trying to run from, each other.
Now let’s talk about The Project itself. As touched upon above, we are given so much information about them from inside sources, outside sources, and reliable and unreliable threads, that Summers effectively binds a reader up in becoming disoriented. I will say that given that I could see the NXIVM influences (the upstate New York setting, the beverage heiress who is a high ranking member, some of the more violent aspects of the group), there wasn’t really much question in my mind about what this group was ultimately going to be like, but had I not had that context I do think that Summers throws in a lot of things that could question that. She does a good job of showing how predatory cult leaders slowly lull their members into a sense of security, love, and faith, and then twist them and meld them into doing some really disturbing things. Lev is one of the more unsettling antagonists that I’ve encountered in YA literature in awhile, as his charisma and visage of kindness is rarely cracked as the book goes on, unless you know what to look for, just like psychopathic cult leaders in real life. There are Raniere influences here, but also shades of David Koresh and Charles Dederich, though Lev still stands on his own without being too much of a stand in for any one cult leader.
“The Project” is definitely a tragic and unsettling book, but it’s another strong narrative from an author who isn’t afraid to go dark. And it also has little bright spots of potential hope that are much appreciated in tales like this. Summers has a knack for balancing all of this out, and I think this will be another hit for her.
Rating 8: Intense, tragic, and unsettling as heck, “The Project” gets into the cult mentality and shows the power a charismatic leader can have.