Undeniable Good and the Evil it Falls Prey To: The Project by Courtney Summers

So, let’s not add ‘join a cult’ to our bucket list. But then again, I guess no one really plans to join a cult, do they?

Who, What, Where?

Following the death of her parents in a car wreck, thirteen-year-old Lo Denham was left in the care of her great aunt when her sister, Bea, mysteriously joined The Unity Project, a religious charity organisation working across Upstate New York. Now nineteen and alone, Lo hasn’t heard from her sister in years and spends her days working as an assistant to the head of SVO magazine. One day a stranger recognises her by name shortly before throwing himself in front of a moving train. The man’s father blames The Unity Project for his son’s death. Lo has always believed there’s more to the organisation and its charismatic leader, Lev Warren, than meets the eye and sees this as the perfect opportunity to not only expose the group and find her sister but to make her name as a journalist. To her surprise, Lo is granted permission to write her story and full access to both The Unity Project and Lev himself, the organisation hoping to prove once and for all that they have nothing to hide. Yet, the more Lo begins to investigate, the more she starts to question who to trust and what the truth is. But is the truth really what she’s looking for?

Lo

One of the things Courtney Summers is known for is her unlikeable but complex leading ladies, and Gloria ‘Lo’ Denham definitely fits the mould. I started out somewhat unsure about Lo. She’s acerbic, ambitious, stubborn, and because of the loss, rejection and trauma in her past, it often feels as though she walks around with a giant rain cloud hovering over her head. My connection with Lo is complicated in that while I never grew to “like” her as a person, with time I did come to care about what happened to her and to appreciate her emotional depth. Seeing other characters take advantage of her loneliness, fears and insecurities was difficult to witness and I hoped that she would find some level of peace by the end.

Having A Sister is a Promise

Like Sadie, at its heart The Project is a novel about the bond between sisters. The story is told effectively in dual timelines between Bea in 2012 and Lo five years later. Early on, I found it difficult to invest in Bea and Lo’s relationship as their scenes together are limited and mostly take place either when Lo is a baby or not fully conscious after the car accident. Yet, Summers managed to successfully build the connection over time through the intensity of the girls’ thoughts and actions to create a messy, raw and painful depiction of unconditional love.

There’s a beautiful contrast between the progression of Lo and Bea’s stories that I really enjoyed. Both girls start out with vastly different attitudes towards religion, The Unity Project, and themselves, and it’s interesting to see Bea’s eyes slowly open to the issues around her whilst Lo simultaneously seems to close hers for want of family, safety and belonging.  

Hidden Monsters

The Project is not a twists galore, drama-filled book. It’s a very slow build that takes time to get into, and as I was reading there were several points at which I wondered where it was all going. I later came to understand that this pacing is crucial to the story it’s trying to tell. As an Average Joe, it’s difficult to grasp the psychology behind people who willingly join and remain parts of religious cults. More so, how cult leaders can hold such power and sway over their members. The Project takes the time to illustrate this in a believable way. Through both Bea and Lo’s stories we’re able to see just how much influence a person can wield over those who are isolated, lost and broken by making them feel seen and valued, and giving them hope and purpose. The manipulation, control and gaslighting within The Unity Project is subtle and insidious. By the time the darkness underneath starts to reveal itself, the reader (like Lo) has been led into such a false illusion of peace and comfort that it’s difficult to recognise or process the acts of abuse so casually mentioned.

Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

Something I’ve come to realise about Summers’s books is that while they’re classified as YA and the writing feels like YA, her stories, characters and themes are much more mature and adult in essence. After Sadie, I expected The Project would be dark, especially considering the premise. And dark it was. This is a book which isn’t afraid to delve into the bleaker sides of humanity and religion. It deals with child abuse, suicide, grief, murder, torture, manipulation, PTSD, and intimate partner violence, just to name a few topics. Some of these elements take a while to creep up and rear their ugly heads, but eventually they do. While I enjoy these types of grittier narratives for their gravity and realism, I know a lot of other readers prefer to steer clear. However, I should note that despite its tough subject matters The Project manages to retain a strong underlying sense of hope and goodness in the world that will somehow shine through no matter how dark circumstances may seem.

Mixed Bag Ending

I have mixed thoughts on the ending for this one. There are parts that I liked, but there’s certainly one major component I wasn’t fond of at all, largely because there’s no explanation for it. Over the course of the novel there are several instances of events which characters interpret as being miracles but each of these have alternative real-world explanations. The sequence of events at the end of the book, on the other hand, does not appear to have any sort of non-miracle reasoning. My issue with this is that not only does it make the ending feel too neat but it has caused me to rethink the book’s overall scepticism towards religion as truth, leaving me confused as to how to interpret some of its overarching ideas.


While The Project may not have been as completely immersive and devastating an experience as Sadie, I enjoyed this book and feel as though it mostly succeeded in what Summers was trying to achieve. If you’re looking for a well written, strong and emotionally grounded story, and are willing to be patient for a pay-off, you’ll likely enjoy The Project.

3.5 Stars

Messy Love, Revenge & Real World Monsters: Sadie by Courtney Summers

5 stars

Sadie

Normally, when I talk about my 4.5 and 5 star reads I tend to use words like ‘amazing’ or ‘fantastic’. But as that tends to conjure up images of me running over hills, singing about the sound of music, that vocab may need a bit of an overhaul here. Considering this book deals with poverty, drug addiction, neglect, loss, murder, and child sexual abuse, it’s pretty much the perfect example for which to break out a Ron Weasley classic: You’re going to suffer but you’re going to be happy about it. Or more aptly: you’re going to enjoy reading Sadie even though it’ll take your fragile heart, break it into little pieces and then set those pieces on fire.

I’m totally selling you on this one, aren’t I?

Why You Should Read this Book

A Realistic World

One of the things that really stands out about Sadie is how real everything feels. This is surprising because Sadie spends much of the book travelling around the US, meaning most of the places and people don’t get a lot of time to make an impression. However, there’s something about the way Summers writes that just makes everything jump off the page.  By dividing the book up into podcast transcripts and Sadie’s first person POV, we get both a textbook description of settings and characters as well as a more biased, personal perspective which really helps immerse you in the story. No matter where the book is taking place or who Sadie (& West) is interacting with, you’re very easily able to visualise it/them.

Fantastic Plotting, Pacing & Writing

Going into Sadie my biggest concern was that it would feel rushed. I mean, look at it, I don’t think there’s any chance of me ever trying to use it as a paperweight. It only took me a few pages to realise that this wouldn’t be a problem. I can imagine some people might even find it too slow or subtle, but for me, it was paced perfectly.

Podcasts

The choice to tell the story half as a podcast transcript was a great one, not only because it’s entirely believable that events like this could form the basis of a crime podcast, but because they provide balance and variety to the novel  These “transcripts” were very useful as they allowed Summers to flesh out characters that interact with Sadie and details of her life that wouldn’t come up organically in her own POV. They’re also great at gradually building the foundations for some of the heavier reveals later in the book.  As West is essentially playing catch up to Sadie, some parts of his journey will feel repetitive but there’s something very interesting about watching him try to piece things together from what Sadie’s left behind and what people will tell him.

Sadie’s Perspective

Sadie’s POV is tragically sad but beautifully written and I found myself lost inside her head. Both the internal and external components of her plot seem to have this sort of natural progression. Reading through Sadie’s memories and recollections is almost like putting a puzzle together. There’s a sense of direction in that you’re getting closer to understanding why she is the way she is and why she’s doing what she’s doing. Summer’s writing is wonderfully emotive and she transitions between memory and present so seamlessly. Similarly, in terms of reaching her goal, while most of Sadie’s leads don’t exactly pan out as expected, you somehow always feel as though she’s getting increasingly nearer to the end.

Dark Subject Matters

As I mentioned earlier, Sadie deals with some heavy topics and it does so in a brutally honest way. Better break out the chainmail, cause this is going to hurt. This book really does remind you that the world is not even close to a perfect or nice place and that sometimes real monsters are far worse than any creature you could find in a horror film.  Weirdly though, Sadie manages to be disturbing without ever being graphic or gory. Dark moments are always alluded to but never described in detail on the page. I have to give Summers points because she understands that what the human imagination can conjure is often a million times more awful than anything she could ever describe (I can definitely vouch for my own imagination, you bloody overactive nuisance). Sadie doesn’t shy away from the darkest corners of the world. It’s not always a comfortable read but it’s extremely difficult to drag yourself away from it.

Sadie as a Character

One of my favourite parts of the novel turned out to be Sadie, herself. There’s something so deeply broken and vulnerable about Sadie – she grew up with very little money, in a household in which her mother was a drug addict and neglected her, had to take responsibility for her sister, Mattie, at a young age, was sexually abused when she was only eleven years old, and to top it off she has a stutter. There’s just so much pain and darkness in her life and all you want to do is protect her from suffering any more harm. The fact that she’s nineteen and has such a bleak view of people and the world is consistently heartbreaking yet understandably justified. However, at the same time, she somehow also displays a great degree of courage and determination. There’s this immense underlying strength that pushes her towards her goal despite knowing it’s dangerous. Even with her sister gone, Sadie’s still fighting for her and while her path may be extremely self-destructive and often involve some not so great actions, I can’t help but admire her.

Why You Might Skip It

An Open Ending

If there was one singular thing that brought this book down for me, and only because of pure, unadulterated frustration, it would be the ending. I’m warning you now, if you’re someone who loves closure and explanation, the conclusion to Sadie will make you want to scream. The end of this book drove me crazy for ages because it’s open and there are so many unanswered questions. After all the pain in this book, you just want one small bit of happiness. Courtney Summers says NO. No catharsis for you.

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Sadie is a raw, dark and unflinchingly honest read. If you’re looking for a YA thriller that’ll make you feel some intense things, this is the one for you. If anyone needs me, I’ll be over here, hiding under the bed covers because the world is a scary and horrible place.

So, if I worked in quarter stars and wanted to be super petty by deducting points for the ending, this would be 4.75 Stars but because I don’t and I’m not, we’ll round it up to…

5 Stars