Seeing and Believing in ‘The Project’

This post is sort of a (non-spoiler-y) book review of Courtney Summers’ The Project, sort of a love letter to truly good storytelling, sort of (surprise!!!) existential naval-gazing. Here’s a short plot summary of The Project from Courtney’s website:

After a tragic accident kills most of her family, Bea Denham is determined not to lose the one thing she has left: her little sister, Lo. But Lo’s injuries are catastrophic and nothing short of a miracle can save her now. When Bea’s desperate pleas fall on Lev Warren, the charismatic spiritual leader of The Unity Project, he knows he can help. All Bea has to do is believe . . . Lo awakes in the ICU to find her parents are dead and her sister has joined The Unity Project, abandoning Lo in the care of their great aunt. The more Lo learns, the more she’s convinced the beloved group is hiding sinister secrets. If only she could make Bea believe . . . Years later, when a man claims The Unity Project killed his son, Lo sees the perfect opportunity to expose the group and finally reunite with Bea. But her investigation will put her in the direct path of Lev Warren . . . and he will make her question everything she thought she knew to be true, and all that she believes . . .

Some of y’all read that “believe” repetition and thought, “oh, I see, this is a Catey book.” And aside from the fact that I spend much of my reading life wandering around between new Courtney Summers books, there really is a lot of stuff in here that pushes my specific buttons! Lines and phrases repeated like litanies across time frames and character perspectives. So much about bodies and faith and ambition and need.

But even if I wasn’t, you know, myself, this book!!! This book is amazing. The story is perfectly paced and the writing is as bold and clear as you’d expect if you’ve ever read a CS book. In some ways, reading the book feels like encountering a cult, the way you sometimes read an account or a memory of something you’ve already read about but can’t quite remember if the details were the same and that seems important and then it’s gone. There are big, critical moments and small, bone-deep moments and twists and flashbacks and lots of family feelings. There’s this backdrop, like a constant low buzz in the background, of loneliness and how being hurt by and leaving one community/group/family can make you so vulnerable when another one comes along promising to be better. (After you all read The Project, come back and talk with me about Dana.)

But what really lingers for me, weeks after I finished reading, is the questions the book brought up and then declined to give me easy answers for. There are a bunch of those: What would you do for love? If good work is being done, does it matter in whose name and/or with what motivation? What made [character] join a cult? What might make [other character] join a cult? What could make me?

That last one brings me to the one still haunting me most: What would you give for someone to really see you? To look at you and say, I see who are you and what you want and what you feel, and it is good, and you are good.

I think this is what I keep coming back to from The Project because it’s not just a good thing to make someone feel safe and seen, but it is possibly the thing I most want to contribute to the world. I think there are too many spaces, especially churches (obligatory not all churches), that sort of ask you to leave out or hide parts of yourself to be a valued part of the community, and it’s hard enough to do the whole human existence thing, right? It matters to me that the people I love feel that I see them. And it’s also something I want for myself, of course. The second time I saw my new therapist, I was telling her about a tough situation, and she said basically, “That situation is tough, and it is not the same as other situations and because of that, in some ways, it is tougher.” I know that’s vague without details, but reader, it cracked my heart open. The tough situation is tough, and it isn’t the same as other also-tough situations. She helped me let go of this huge, lingering-for-years thing because it was maybe the first time someone pointed right at the thing just to be like, hey, I see you carrying that thing.

To clarify, therapists are not cult leaders and churches are not cults (obligatory not all churches). I just make that connection to point out the power of feeling seen and accepted and understood. It makes us feel powerful, hopefully, in positive contexts. But how easy would it be to instead give that power back to the person who makes us feel that way? What could they ask for in return that would be too much?

Most of us, I think, feel sure that we’re too smart and too stable to be vulnerable to a cult. That we’d know one if we saw one and steer clear. That people who “get themselves into those situations” are weaker than we are in some crucial way. And part of the success of The Project is that it really takes that certainty away.

(cheesy transition alert. here it comes …)

What it leaves instead is a certainty that Courtney Summers is just so good at this. I read her first book, Cracked Up to Be, in my first YA lit class when I was a college freshman, and it changed the way I thought about what writing could be and set an impossibly high bar for every book I would ever read thereafter. When a new CS book comes out, as with any Mega-Favorite, I end up doing kind of a panicky internal temperature check, like, still Favorite??? And, always, yes, still Favorite. If you’ve never met one of her unforgettable girls, you should (maybe start with Sloane, who isn’t sure she wants to survive the apocalypse! or Sadie, who is full of vengeance and comes with a side of questions about uncritical consumption of true crime podcasts!). If you’ve read all her books probably more than once, maybe let’s do a reread club ahead of The Project coming out next February??? I’m not kidding, I want to, let’s do that.

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