The Project by Courtney Summers is a thriller about a toxic cult. In The Project, we follow Lo Denham as she tries to track down her sister and prove The Unity Project is toxic.
Lo Denham has been on her own since her sister joined The Unity Project after their parents’ death. The Unity Project has been classed as a charity more than a cult, but those affected by it say otherwise. As Lo is heading to work, she witnesses a young man committing suicide- after telling her he knows her. The young man is actually someone she knows son, and he is determined to prove it is the Unity Project’s fault.
“Bea ran toward the world without looking back and Lo couldn’t seem to head in any direction without the assurance of a point of return.”
Lo and Bea are seemingly the closest of sisters. Lo was prematurely born, and initially, Bea was not interested in having a little sister. But from the moment she laid eyes on Lo, she knew they would be close. Her parents let Bea name her, and she does. Gloria. Lo. She immediately knows the name that Lo should have.
Lo is anxious and scared of everything. Bea is brave and ready to jump into any situation with only fears of things she can see, touch, and taste. They grow up like this until Lo is 14, and their parents die in a traumatic car accident. Lo also happens to be in the car, and she is the only survivor. They don’t think that Lo will live, and Bea stays with her night and day. She is desperate to make sure Lo survives because Bea has never been alone in this life.
“Lo looked at Bea with wide eyes and asked her if she was ever afraid of all the things she didn’t know could happen to her. Bea told Lo no. She only believed in things she could see.”
Bea prays for the first time in her life. She has never believed in God. She’s still not sure that she does. And when she is praying to God, she meets Lev. The young preacher of the Unity Project. Lev has denounced most traditional churches and teaches that you are to give everything up in this life to prepare for salvation. Lo makes a recovery, and Bea no longer only believes in things she can see. She begins to attend The Project’s meetings and finds herself attracted to Lev. Bea is young, still, and Lev doesn’t approach her in this way until Bea completely separates herself from her sister. At the command of the Project, Bea cuts off all communication from Lo.
“It’s one thing to be Chosen by God and another entirely to be Chosen by Lev. It’s as perfect as she’s ever felt.”
Courtney Summers has done a fantastic job at writing a cult thriller. You don’t fully know that it’s a thriller until 50%. The book makes you watch as someone falls into a cult mentality. It’s something that’s discussed, but even people who say that it could never be them are susceptible as well. The book really shows the predatory nature of these kinds of cults and how it can make you feel loved and supported. By the time you finally realize you’re in a cult, it’s too late. They have everything you could want.
The characters in the book were realistic, from Lo and Bea’s relationship even to Lev and the people whose lives he ruins. The God mentality that cult leaders often receive from their followers is palatable in this book and Lev is not exempt from it. There is even a moment where Lev says someone is attempting to “take on his image”, which feels as though Lev thinks himself as high as God and untouchable.
The reason this is not a full 5-star review from me is that Lo falling in with the Project as quickly as she does felt unrealistic. It was paced too quickly as if the author needed to wrap this up fast or was running out of approved pages for the story she had in mind. I understand this happening, and maintaining the pacing of a suspenseful book like this can be difficult, but this just took it away from me a little bit.
“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.”
Summers includes the aftermath of this kind of situation at the very end, which I always wonder about with thrillers. What happens to these people and their trauma? What happens with the children involved? The ending of this book was satisfying. It was upsetting and raw, but satisfying. I had been trying to get my hands on this book for quite some time. I’m really grateful that I was approved for it!