Few things are as much fun as getting to read the newest book from an author who continues to rise towards the height of her power. Courtney Summers is the Queen of YA/NA Devastation, and with good reason. Her stories, like so much great YA and NA literature, belie the idea that teen and young adult stories can’t grapple with the dark and dangerous aspects of life. The Project is a miasmic and cloying journey through the heart of a cult and out the other side. The ending, while not quite happy, demonstrates Summers’ knack for nuanced devastation, delivering just the right balance of optimism and despair.
Lo (Gloria) Denham is 19 years old with dreams of being a magazine writer. A few years ago, just as Lo was recovering from a car crash that killed her parents, Lo’s older sister, Bea, became wrapped up in the Unity Project. The Project is, to all outward appearances, a vehicle for good works to redeem humanity in the eyes of God. Frustrated by her lack of progress at the upstart magazine where she has been the editor’s assistant for a year, still hurt from the separation from her sister, Lo resolves to uncover and expose the Project—and its charismatic but reclusive leader, Lev Warren—for what it is. But she soon learns that bearding the lion in his own den is easier said than done, and the price of learning the truth of the Project and Bea’s involvement might be Lo’s very own soul.
Trigger warnings for physical, emotional, verbal abuse, as well as child abuse, parental death, car accidents.
This book is creepy—like, proper creepy. In the month or so prior to finally reading this copy from NetGalley (even though my paper copy is on pre-order for release day!), I had immersed myself in the two documentaries about the NXIVM cult. So I naturally kept comparing Lev Warren to the real-life Keith Raniere. Summers has discussed how Jonestown was the primary template for the Unity Project, but at the end of the day, if you are at all familiar with cults, you will recognize what happens here. The way that Warren deflects and uses minions to do his dirty work. The way that any criticism of the Project automatically becomes, conspiracy-theory fashion, proof that the Project is doing good work, and it’s just people who are jealous or have bad intent. The way that Warren twists your mind enough that you begin to believe his abuse of you is warranted, is what you deserve and must endure to atone and get closer to his light.
The narrative has a spiralling structure, dualistic both in timeframe and in mindset. I wasn’t a huge fan of this to begin with, but now that I look back at the novel as a whole, I appreciate it. Lo, told in first person in 2017/2018, starts skeptical of the Project yet finds herself inextricably drawn into its folds: the more she tries to discredit it, the more it seems to suck her in. Bea, told in shorter third person scenes from 2013 or so up until 2017, starts off enthusiastic about the Project and Warren, only for her disenchantment to become greater and more frantic as the story moves on. The complementary nature of the sisters’ narratives demonstrates how each person comes to a cult for different reasons, but the levers that move them into place and ultimately cause them to embrace the leader are the same. Cults act like viruses to the programming of the human mind: once they find the initial weakness that grants them entry, their MO and approach is almost always the same. Comfort. Empower. Isolate. Create dependency. In the end, the cult doesn’t want you to see yourself as a person anymore but as a part of something larger. If that sounds familiar … well, that’s why cults are so pernicious. A lot of the things we see as positive in our society can easily tip over into being cults. Humans are just messy that way.
The Project asks us to sympathize with Lo and also to marvel at her. We know as readers going into this book that the Unity Project is a cult. We know it’s bad news. So, like in a horror movie as the protagonist runs up the stairs, our first instinct as the audience is to yell at the book and wonder at why Lo doesn’t see her entrapment as it happens. This is the challenge to which Summers rises in this novel, a storytelling conundrum that proves as thorny as it is rewarding once unlocked: we all like to think we’d never join a cult, never fall for their recruitment tactics, so how does the author get the reader to sympathize with a main character who does fall for it?
Start by making your character angry. Not upset, not frustrated. Proper angry, the kind of anger that develops over time like an ulcer, burning away at you until it’s all you have left. Lo has lost everything: her parents, her sister, and even, really, herself.
Next, make the world around your character utterly unsympathetic to her emotions and needs. Paul doesn’t care about Lo or her career; he sees her as a useful employee (and he is really quite a dick). Lauren, similarly, is not a friend. Lo doesn’t get friends, doesn’t get connection. Her last real connection is with a stranger who subsequently jumps in front of a train. So you might understand why Lo’s psyche is fragile on this point: it is easier to turn your back on the world when, as far as you are concerned, the world has turned its back on you.
Finally, the carrot. Bea. Lo wants to take down the Project, yes, but deep down what she truly desires more than that is to be reunited with her sister. Warren understands this and uses this in such a cruel way, basically tearing down what is left of Lo’s sense of self by dangling that potential reunion in front of her, the carrot to the stick that was Bea’s initial estrangement. He strings Lo along even as he exposes Lo to numerous harmful encounters, psychologically and physically. No, he doesn’t cause Lo’s car accident—but he seizes every opportunity that presents itself, every crack in her exterior, and expertly applies the wedges that allow him to infiltrate and infect her very being.
Ultimately, if you sympathize with Lo as a reader, it doesn’t have to be because you think that you also could be seduced by a cult (though, let’s be real—I suspect most of us could, under the right circumstances, ego aside here). Rather, you should sympathize with Lo because Summers creates the conditions in which it becomes evident, even inevitable, that she should be seduced by a cult.
That is the project of The Project and what makes this novel so creepy. This is not a book about how cults are creepy and scary and harmful places—that would be boring and nothing new. No, this is a book about how cults could be appealing places under the right circumstances. The question, really, isn’t “why do people join cults?” but actually “why don’t more people join cults?” We like to think that cults recruit the broken and the lost, but if you find in a cult your family and your people, you are human and working as intended—that’s what the cults take advantage of, our very human need for connection.
Ok, so for the rest of the review, I’m going to get intertextual and compare The Project to Summers’ previous novel, Sadie. No spoilers, but if you haven’t read Sadie, it might not make much sense to you. If you stop here, you are not missing anything else. I hope you liked this review!
Honestly, Sadie remains my favourite, for the simple reason that Sadie’s brutal first-person narration of her single-minded revenge journey fucked me up, and I cannot get it out of my mind (body “sharp enough to cut glass” but still “a beautiful deception,” oh my god …). As much as I enjoyed The Project’s structure and storytelling overall, there is nothing quite so captivating or heart-stopping in its prose for me.
However, I think there is some value in comparing these two novels—not in trying to determine which one is better, because I think they are fundamentally different in that regard—but rather in terms of how Summers continues to evolve in her writing and storytelling.
Summers has always written about lost girls. It’s her thing, ok? Perhaps the most compelling facet of Sadie was that it was literally about a lost girl, both in the sense that Sadie was lost to us and to herself. And I think, recognizing that she had reached kind of the epitome of that particular incarnation of the lost girl narrative, Summers looked for another angle and found one for The Project. See, in many ways, The Project is an inversion of Sadie. Both are about lost girls, both are about sisters, and both are about cults.
Whaaat, you say? Sadie has nothing about cults in it! Except, dear reader, that book is all about the cult of the Lost Girl as seen in our media. West McCray’s entire half of the story is about establishing this, exploring the way that we as a society mythologize, idealize, and sacrifice these Lost Girls. Having never met Sadie, West himself forms this ersatz picture of her that we get to compare to the girl we know from her own (unreliable) narration. His podcast is the continuation in a long line of media fixation with what happens to the girls and women in our society too damaged for us to “fix.” We don’t just love trainwrecks; we worship them to the point of causing them.
So both novels are about cults, although the cult in The Project is much more straightforward and obvious. Additionally, both novels feature an intense bond between sisters. Whereas in Sadie only the eponymous sister has a voice, in this book both sisters get a chance to share their experiences with us. In many ways, Mattie is a MacGuffin: she exists as a memory for Sadie to cling to, her only tentative link back to a humanity that has, for all intents and purposes, rejected her. In contrast, The Project is where Summers digs deeper into the idea of sororal bonds by examining how Bea feels about Lo and vice versa and helping us to understand that their relationships can be equally intense yet not reciprocal.
And so the inversion: The Project turns inwards what Sadie left diffuse: the cult, making it a more focused and defined phenomenon versus its metaphoric status in Sadie; likewise, it turns outwards and makes more explicit what Sadie left implicit and ineffable: the relationships between two lost girls.
Both of these novels deserve accolades, and while I might prefer one to another, what I have discovered by doing this comparison (this is why I love writing reviews; they help me understand my feelings about a book) is that The Project struck a chord in me that Sadie did not. And that is what is so valuable about authors like Courtney Summers: even as her work explores similar motifs time and again, each of her books is its own self-contained symphony, recombining those motifs to explore new and valuable themes.
The Project is about loss, but it is also about (false) hope for redemption. The idea that there is something very human about wanting to be forgiven, to be told it is all right, you are all right. It is a novel about power and how we are willing to give it up before we even realize we have it, because part of being human is valuing connection and belonging even at the expense of our independence. Because the world, the whole world, is so scary and random that, in the face of something like a car accident, the small amount of power we possess seems so trivial that when someone more apparently powerful asks us to give it up, we might say, “Why not?” In the face of uncertainty, a certain face can feel like a life preserver, even while their hands tie the rock around our waist that ultimately drags us to the bottom, smiling along the way.
So … I guess I liked this book?