Monday, July 22, 2013

The Humanity Project, by Jean Thompson

The first characters we meet in The Humanity Project are Sean, a construction worker who has hit hard financial times, and his teenage son Conner. The two are about to lose their house, and Sean is distracting himself by looking for women on line, an activity that will prove disastrous. Next we meet Linnea, a teenager who is arguing with her stepsister Megan in the bathroom of their high school. They, too, are about to be beset with disaster--a school shooting in which Megan will be killed and Linnea will be emotionally scarred to the point that her mother can no longer handle her. Her mother sends Linnea to California to live with her father Art, a middle-aged part-time teacher who has no idea how to parent a child he does not know. Linnea and Conner meet and become friends in just one of many coincidences that mark The Humanity Project.

The book takes its name from a nonprofit foundation started by a wealthy widow, Mrs. Foster. Mrs. Foster employs Conner as a handy man and hires her former visiting nurse Christie (who just happens to be Art and Linnea's neighbor) to head the foundation. The foundation's goal is to spend Mrs. Foster's money in ways that will help poor people and heighten humanity in general. One of its first major projects is hosting a conference on "Investing in Our Better Selves," which will explore the connection between economics and spirituality.

Despite the book's title, the foundation is a relatively small part of the many intersecting stories in the novel, most of which feature people whose humanity has been undermined either by the terrible circumstances they have faced (Connor, Sean, and Linnea) or by their own poor choices (Art, Christie, and Sean). Connor and Sean's story is especially well-told; while Linnea's story should be moving, it somehow fails to grip the reader--and perhaps it also failed to grip Thompson, as she seems to let Linnea slip away until the last chapter, something of an epilogue in which Linnea describes what happened to a number of characters.

Although The Humanity Project has gotten a number of positive reviews, I found it to be seriously flawed. The theme of how circumstance and decision-making can make us less human is worth exploring, Thompson's novel is too cluttered with extraneous characters and subplots to do the theme justice. In addition, the ending is weak--it's a bit too neat, and the device of the retrospective epilogue is trite (and ineffective).

Favorite passage: None

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