The Project by Courtney Summers

the project 189x294 The Project by Courtney Summers

Buy The Project
Special price: $20.11 Regular price: $20.60
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Format: Hardcover
Reviewer: Melissa on Mar. 12, 2021
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

From the very first moment that I heard of The Project by Courtney Summers, I knew I had to read it. Summers’ Canadian YA novels have always spoken to me. However, her last novel, Sadie, was better than anything she’d ever done, and I made an educated guess that her craft would continually improve with her latest novel. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Lo Denham is used to being on her own. When her parents died in a car accident, her older sister Bea joined The Unity Project, leaving Lo in the care of their estranged aunt. Thanks to their extensive charity work and community outreach, The Unity Project has won the hearts and minds of many in upstate New York, but Lo knows there is more to the group than meets the eye. And she’s spent the last six years attempting to prove it. When a man shows up at the magazine where Lo works claiming that The Unity Project killed his son, Lo sees it as the perfect opportunity to expose the group and reunite with her sister as well. Her investigation puts her in the direct path of The Unity Project’s leader, Lev Warren, and as Lo delves deeper into the The Project and 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 where 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 Project tells the story of two sisters, Bea and Lo Denham, in two main timelines. The one timeline runs from 2011-2013 and tells the story from Bea’s POV, and the other, from 2017-2018, tells Lo’s POV. Even if I wasn’t a huge fan of Summers’ writing, anyone who knows me would know I’d be interested in reading a novel about sisters who have been raised with the idea that “Having a sister is a promise no one but the two of you can make—and no one but the two of you can break.” Because like Bea and Lo, I’m a sister in a sister-sister relationship. Because of this, I can tell you that Summers demonstrates a fundamental understanding of what it means to be the sister of another sister. She also demonstrates how, when things change in this relationship, it is felt as a profound betrayal by one or both of the sisters. Even when the change, in the case of The Project, came about because of a desire by Bea to protect her little sister.

By weaving together two, parallel timelines, Summers puts her readers into the uncomfortable position of seeing how both Bea and Lo come under the influence of The Unity Project and Lev Warren. It’s especially poignant when it happens to Lo because she has, for years, been critical of The Project and the way they have isolated her from her older sister. When Lev Warren gaslights Lo to destabilize her sense of self and reality, she begins to question everything she thought she knew. As an outsider, the reader is able to question and see what both Bea and Lo can’t, but even when they can tell that what Bea and Lo learn to believe is flawed, they can empathize with why Bea and Lo believe these things. In this way, Summers brilliantly develops a delicate balance between making the reader uncomfortable seeing the characters she creates fall for the lies Lev tells, but also allowing us to understand and empathize with why they are susceptible to his lies. Readers may recognize that, like Bea and Lo, under the right circumstances, we might also be susceptible to a charismatic person like Lev.

In bookish circles, Summers is known for destroying her readers. Her books have many difficult situations, and not gonna lie, it’s hard to see Bea and Lo go through the things that they go through. Some of the things that happen in The Project are absolutely devastating and horrifying. These are things that no one should ever have to go through. Yet, even as Summers takes her readers to some really dark places in The Project, there is a sense of hope at the end of it. It’s not the kind of thriller with a WTF moment at the end that makes you feel uncomfortable and unsure of how to feel. It is a story where characters go through some horrendous things. Yet there is a sense that those who make it to the other side have a chance to heal and have a hope of a full future, which isn’t the case in many other novels I’ve read before.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Summers also demonstrates a complex and believable representation of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, through Lo’s character. Throughout the novel, there are scenes when Lo wakes up from terrible nightmares about a shadowed man in her room at the hospital even though her accident happened six years earlier. It represents the way that past traumas will continually affect those who have experienced it in the present moment. Similarly, there are some difficult scenes in which Lo experiences a traumatic event that closely parallels some of her past traumas. Through these scenes, Summers demonstrates how Lo finds herself psychologically in both the past and the present simultaneously after being triggered by something that is reminiscent of her traumatic past. While this may be triggering to some readers, I’m certain that others will find this representation of PTSD relatable.

If you’re looking for a book that will surprise you while being a compelling and fast read, then you need to pick up The Project. That is, if you haven’t already.

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