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. 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 leader, Lev Warren and as Lo delves deeper into The Project, the lives of its members 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.
The Unity Project is so similar to such cults like Scientology with such things as Attestation, where family share their sins. There's also an ugliness behind the so-called helpfulness of the group. Lev Warren is like many so-called prophets who latch on to people's suffering and longings for a purpose in this life.
This novel jumps back and forth between time and between protagonists. A few times at the beginning, I was confused on what was really happening. Once I got past that, I was riveted by Lo's determination on doing anything, including getting into the family, in order to find her sister Bea.
Bea's story is one of a teen who feels her answered to a prayer to save her sister is answered by Lev Warren. I didn't feel she was gullible, but someone who got caught up in a world that she so much wanted to exist.
Intense psychological ride where a sister's search for the truth behind a cult will lead her to painful truths. Realistic portrayal of a cult and the power it has on some.
2. Intense thriller
When Lo witnesses a death linked to The Unity Project and then encounters the boy's father at her magazine offices, she decides that this may be the way to find her sister, get answers, and also breakout as a journalist. Although she has only been working as an assistant, she wants to be a writer for the news magazine where she works. When she is offered an exclusive look and interview, she knows that this may be her chance. However, The Project is not an easy one to examine from afar.
What I loved: The book is told from Bea's points-of-view in the past and Lo's in the present, and I was completely captivated by both. It takes a little time to get into the hang of who is who at first, but it was soon smoothly read. Lev and the other individuals at The Project really come charismatically to life, and it was easy to see how Bea and others could get involved with such an organization. Although it seems too good to be true on the surface, digging deeper is more difficult than you would imagine, and I loved the way the sinister feeling lurks throughout the story. This book really shows how individuals could get involved with cults and feel stuck within them as well as the manipulative manner in which they are controlled. This was quite an intense ride.
I will add warnings for dubious consent, psychological and physical abuse, and inappropriate power dynamics in relationships. This was a challenging but completely captivating read.
Final verdict: Masterfully woven and highly compelling, THE PROJECT is a YA psychological thriller that will leave the reader guessing and second guessing until the end. This is an unputdownable book in the vein of SADIE, THEY WISH THEY WERE US, and I KILLED ZOE SPANOS.
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.