THE PROJECT has everything you look for in a Courtney Summers novel: tough family situations, a girl more than a little haunted, and an angry, nearly aggressive search for answers. In this latest title, you get all that and a fascinating exploration of cults.
THE PROJECT highlights many ways someone can get drawn into a cult but primarily focuses on the paths of Lo and Bea. For Bea, we get a timeline several years ago, while Lo's is in her 'present' (2018). When many people think of cults, they tend to jump to the aftermath of them: the deaths, the deceptions, the lies unveiled. It's common to be on the judgmental side, wondering how no one could have seen the warning signs or questioning what sort of person would want to join a cult to begin with. When Bea first encounters Lev Warren, she is at the end of her rope, desperate to find a path out of the pain she's feeling or maybe if not an answer, a reason or a cause to put her pain behind. You see how she falls in love with Lev's charisma and with the ideals the Unity Project claims to represent. She finds a community in the middle of her heartache.
Fast forward several years, Lo, now a young adult, believes something is wrong with The Unity Project, no matter how many reporters have investigated them and returned with nothing. She hasn't seen or spoken to her sister in years, and every time she goes to the Unity Project, she's turned away. She arrives like many of us may imagine we would: immediately skeptical, on guard, and defenses fully up. Her change is so gradual that it was halfway into the book before it really started settling in. It becomes extremely easy to see how, when life is throwing punch after punch at you and you keep falling down, even while trying to get up, you could oh so slowly be drawn into a person who has only been kind and gentle, even knowing they have strange beliefs. Lo starts to doubt her own judgement, and once she, like Bea before her, reaches the end of her rope, she finds Lev at the bottom.
The plot moved slowly for me the first half, but once it hit that halfway point, it took off. The last fourth or so had me particularly consumed. There's rarely any neat and tidy ending with a Summers book, but we do get more answers than I was anticipating (no spoilers).
After finishing, THE PROJECT left me feeling emotionally wrung out with a bittersweet aftertaste and in complete amazement of Courtney Summers' talent once again.