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This was a tough one for me. I’ve never read any of Courtney Summers’ books before, though I’ve been meaning to. Sadie has been on my to-read list for ages, and I’ve heard such good things that I’m glad I got The Project out of the way first.
Now, I should start by saying: I love learning about cults. When I’m working, I’ve always got a true crime podcast on, and cults, cult leaders, cult followers, totally fascinate me. It’s the reason I picked this book up! This likely shadowed my reading of The Project, because there were multiple instances where I paused to note things like: “sounds like Jim Jones,” or “Applegate did this.”
This is fine! This is great, honestly. It’s clear Summers did extensive research for The Project. But for anyone big into studying cults, I don’t know that I would recommend this book. Compared to the real-life examples, the fictional Unity Project feels…directionless, unrealistic, and even watered down at times. (Yes, things get dark at the end, but very much in the predictable-because-it’s-a-cult way).
Regardless, Summers is an amazing writer. I was hooked by her direct, haunting style, which is why I’m still so excited to read her other work. The plot, the characters, the pacing…I did struggle with these to the point of almost putting the book down at several points. Read on for the full *with spoilers* review!
**Spoilers from here on out**
The Project begins with the backstory of our MC, Lo. Her parents are killed in a car crash, Lo is on the verge of dying, and her sister, Bea not-so-subtly makes a deal with the devil, in the guise of Unity Project founder/leader Lev Warren. Lo survives and Bea abandons her recovering sister to join Lev and his followers.
Cut to modern day and Lo is a secretary at an up-and-coming Vice/Gawker-esque news blog. Lo aspires to be a journalist, but her boss continuously claims she’s unqualified and her submissions simply not good enough. Regardless, Lo defies her boss and sets on a mission to save her sister from the Unity Project/make her claim to fame as a journalist, eventually gaining exclusive interview rights with Lev Warren.
I really love the premise for The Project. Lo, with her personal vendetta against the Unity Project, is a compelling MC to follow as she tries to take down Lev. However, there are several nitpicks that forced me to suspend my disbelief just a bit too much. One quick example: the Unity Project has been around for years, is big enough in the community that everyone has heard of them–yet one Vice article written years earlier is the only negative piece on them? It’s a minor detail, absolutely, but it weakens the world-building specifically to set up why everyone is (seemingly) against Lo’s mission.
Aside from minor hiccups, the plot is interesting enough to keep a person reading, although I do wish more of the slow middle chunk was less about Lev and more about the Project’s inner workings and abuses. These revelations are instead crammed into the final 25% of the novel, which brings us to…
The opening chapters of this book are fantastic. The tone is heavy and dark and haunting. Every event that happens in the first 25% packs a real punch. Then, things slow down.
Lo’s eventual deep-dive into investigating the Unity Project should be exciting, but she turns largely passive, the plot carried by conversations that read like cult-behavior exposition dumps. Our introduction to Lev Warren through Lo’s eyes is, frankly, disappointing. Lev lacks charisma, and the more we learn of him, the more directionless the Unity Project appears. Its intentions are vague and simplistic, its abuses shoe-horned in for shock value with no clarity as to why or how things escalated to this point.
Near the end of the book, Lo & Bea’s positions are switched: Lo is drawn into the Unity Project and to Lev Warren, and Bea–we’re led to believe–is free of the organization. I love this idea, but was disappointed in its execution. Lo’s conversion there-and-back again felt so rushed. I can’t help but think if this was the meat of the book, The Project could have been much stronger.
The end comes in an even greater rush, complete with an off-screen deus-ex-machina which is clearly meant to make the reader question if God played a part or not. Unfortunately, this reads like a quick way to wrap up an otherwise muddled story.
To be honest, I didn’t connect to Lo. I felt empathy for her, but she’s often entitled, condescending, and outright rude to other characters. Her relationship with her boss, Paul, is enjoyable at its start, but Lo ruins this–demanding he promote her despite his totally reasonable doubts, accusing him of being a misogynist (seriously–that scene involving Lo’s coworker felt random), and worse boss, etc. I do also wish Lo had interacted with anyone close to her own age (she’s 19, everyone else is 30+). I don’t know if this would make her more relatable, but it stuck out as odd for a YA book.
Then, of course, there’s Lo’s abrupt pivot from loud dissenter to enraptured follower. This could have worked, but I think relying solely on her interactions with Lev is what most weakens this thread. A book like Emma Cline’s The Girls explores the MC’s descent into a Manson-like cult so well, I think, because it focuses less on the ‘leader’ and more on how peer pressure and group-think can force literally anyone to fall in line. The Project, unfortunately, relies on the trope that only those who have suffered severe traumas end up in cults, which feels dangerously simplistic.
The characters, overall, simply don’t feel relatable or likable. Cult-members like Casey and Foster (and ex-member Rob) came across as flat, one-dimensional stereotypes: obligatory trauma, quick indoctrination, not-so-difficult to eventually flip. Lev himself is a stereotype of a cult-leader: charming because we’re told he is, egotistical, and an abusive, controlling monster.
I wanted to love The Project. I thought, from the opening chapters, that I would love it. Unfortunately, the plot and pacing feel too slow and expositional, with too little happening and nothing revelatory or unique enough to make Lev and his Unity Project anything more than a simplistic depiction of a cult.
There is at least one genuinely intriguing and heart-breaking twist, but it took so long to get there, with the plot muddled so much by then, that it didn’t have nearly the amount of impact it should have. I will say, though: the final chapter is beautiful. It’s serene and melancholy, and it’s a perfect reminder that Summers is a hugely talented writer whose works, both past and future, I will absolutely seek out.
- great premise: two sisters separated by a cult, a chance for one to ‘infiltrate’ and expose to save the other
- amazing writing; Summers is direct and clear in her style, but with a haunting tone that is constant and pervasive in the best way
- Bea is so compelling; her chapters are beautifully evocative and genuinely gut-wrenching from start to finish
- weak characters: Lo is entitled and whiny to the point of unlikability; Lev Warren is a weak villain (we’re told too much & see too little); others are, sadly, barely memorable
- too-slow pacing: so much happens in the first and last 25%, with too little to flesh out the big chunk of middle