The ProjectThe Project by Courtney Summers
My rating: 4/5 cats
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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.

lo is nineteen, working as an executive assistant at a fledgling magazine whose founder’s mission to expose the truth at any cost is one she deeply admires and hopes to someday contribute to in a more meaningful way than fetching coffee. the truth she would most like to expose is that of the unity project; a religious group in upstate new york dedicated to social betterment through community outreach under the guidance of the charismatic lev warren.

it’s also a straight-up cult.

six years ago, when lo’s sister bea was herself nineteen, she met warren in the hospital chapel where she was praying for thirteen-year-old lo, clinging to life after the car crash that killed their parents instantly. desperate and alone in the world; a teenager tasked with the burdens of funeral arrangements and medical decisions in the midst of her own grief, bea is as shattered emotionally as her sister is physically, so when lev appears, and seems to perform a miracle—bringing lo back from weeks-long unconsciousness, it is as though he is the literal answer to her prayers. once lo is well enough to be left in the care of a great-aunt neither of them know, bea joins the unity project, becoming more and more distant until she eventually cuts ties with lo altogether.

lo is convinced that the unity project is shady—there have been controversies and rumblings over the years, but no one has been able to uncover enough dirt to stick. when lo witnesses the suicide of a young man affiliated with the group—who calls her by her name and mouths “find it” before stepping in front of a train—she sets out to investigate the group on her own, hoping to find her sister, bring her back, and hold lev accountable.

the story alternates between these two parallel stories in different timelines; bea gratefully entering into the project’s fold and lo barging in with her notebook, skepticism, and virtuous agenda. the more time lo spends with lev, however, the more she begins to question her own beliefs about the project, her sister, and herself.

i put off writing this review for like five months, partly because i was tears-in-my-eyes touched that courtney summers even knew who i was, let alone was offering to give me a copy of this gorgeous creature, and i wanted to Do a Good Job, but also because i didn’t love it right out of the gate, on a visceral, emotional level.

now that some time has passed for reflection, i’m able to see that on a craft level, what she did is really impressive, so even if it didn’t ponch me in my feels the way Sadie did, it’s more important and resonant a reading experience, chronicling the influence of a strong personality on two vulnerable women: both nineteen, both alone in the world, both emotionally underfed; one who wants to believe very much and one who’s not gonna believe anything.

we’re drawn to bea’s story because we wanna know where she is and what happened, but we naturally align ourselves with the skeptical lo (right?), and as her resistance is chipped away by doubt, it is a potent destabilization for the reader.

it’s been a year of mass manipulation, of people believing unbelievable shit, of herman cain tweeting weeks after his own death-by-covid that the pandemic was no big deal—so many things you would read in a book and think, “that’s too contrived.”

and here we are. and this book’s depiction of the seductive appeal of being seen, of sinking into someone’s ideology, in being told how special you are by someone everyone around you regards as capital-c chosen, how, among so many true believers, a little self-doubt goes a long way; it’s masterfully written and needs to be read. the exploitation of loneliness is reprehensible.

I can’t stand it, anymore, when people touch me and I find it hard to explain. It’s not that I don’t want to be touched. It’s because I do—so much—and I’m afraid I’ll give away what’s left of myself to feel less alone.

I already did it once.

i read this and the (still-unreviewed, grrr) We Can Only Save Ourselves months apart, and—oddly enough—they both pub on feb 2. if you’re gonna read one cult-themed book this year, i’d go with this one, even if you’re not into YA, because—like so many of her books—it’s got crossover appeal for days.

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