Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Humanity Project

The Humanity Project by Jean Thompson
Blue Rider Press, 4/23/2013
Hardcover, 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9780399158711

After surviving a shooting at her high school, Linnea is packed off to live with her estranged father, Art, who doesn’t quite understand how he has suddenly become responsible for raising a sullen adolescent girl. Art’s neighbor, Christie, is a nurse distracted by an eccentric patient, Mrs. Foster, who has given Christie the reins to her Humanity Project, a bizarre and well-endowed charity fund. Just as mysteriously, no one seems to know where Conner, the Fosters’ handyman, goes after work, but he has become the one person Linnea can confide in, perhaps because his own home life is a war zone: his father has suffered an injury and become addicted to painkillers. As these characters and many more hurtle toward their fates, the Humanity Project is born: Can you indeed pay someone to be good? At what price?
Thompson proves herself at the height of her powers in The Humanity Project, crafting emotionally suspenseful and thoroughly entertaining characters, in which we inevitably see ourselves. Set against the backdrop of current events and cultural calamity, it is at once a multifaceted ensemble drama and a deftly observant story of our twenty-first-century society.

My Thoughts:

Jean Thompson's latest novel, The Humanity Project, follows the lives of several forlorn people in the Bay area.  Sean and Connor, his son, are about to lose their home. Sean is handyman who is unable to find enough work to support them. Then, after contacting a woman on Craig's List, he is in a mysterious car accident that leaves him in even worse condition. Now he is crippled and unable to work. Connor has to give up his dreams of higher education. He turns to petty theft and ends up becoming a handyman to an older woman, Mrs. Foster. Christie, a home healthcare nurse, is named by Mrs. Foster, a wealthy patient and extreme cat lady, to head a foundation she wants to bequest to pay people to be good to each other. She wants to call it The Humanity Project. Christie's awkward neighbor, Art, an unambitious adjunct professor, struggles to establish some kind of social connection with people. His teenage daughter, Linnea, is sent out to live with him after surviving some mysterious school shooting in Ohio. Linnea and Connor eventually meet and become friends.
So, if all of this sounds depressing, honestly The Humanity Project is depressing as it focuses on this group of various individuals who are doing what they can just to survive. It focuses on some of the major social issues people are facing today: poverty, broken families, violence, estrangement, alienation, homelessness, drug abuse. While focusing on the problems her characters are facing, Thompson is also exploring how much their plight and struggles are directly related to their economic circumstances. No answers are provided as we follow her characters, which are not entirely likeable.
What works is Thompson's superb writing. Even while I was questioning the train-wreck that is every interconnected character's life in this novel, Thompson's ability to render these characters in a very realistic manner allowed me to feel some empathy with their plight. Yes, their lives are a mess and I really wondered how The Humanity Project, which is brought up at almost the half-way point of the book, was going to become a driving force of change. It isn't. It is an idea, a concept, but it isn't brought to fruition in this novel. The ending does offer further explanation on several occurrences and some semblance of closure, but this is not a feel-good happy ending kind of novel.
The rating of The Humanity Project becomes problematic in some ways. It is rife with characters that are down trodden by life and not fulfilled in any way. It is extremely  well written and a compelling social commentary, but not an easy book to read. In some ways it felt much longer than the actual pages. Additionally, since it is hard to become totally enmeshed with the characters, I always felt some disconnect with them. This is a serious book.
Highly Recommended, but I know it may not be a good choice for everyone
Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Blue Rider Press via Netgalley for review purposes.

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