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Book Review: The Humanity Project

I’m going to be uncharacteristically brief to start this review: I didn’t like The Humanity Project by Jean Thompson.

Which really bothers me because the person who suggested it normally gives good recommendations AND the premise of the book was really intriguing. From the blurb on the book, I thought the book was about a girl who moved halfway across the country to live with her estranged father and a rich old woman started The Humanity Project to answer the question, “Can you pay people to be good?”

What I got was an attempt by Thompson to interweave a bunch of characters together and not succeed particularly well. I also never got an answer to the question, so the entire novel felt like Thompson took a premise, then tried to write about it, but never got around to actually dissecting the problem itself–some of the characters literally stage a conference to discuss the question as a way to avoid actually trying to answer it.

A conference. What could be more boring than a conference? Well, I’m about to get spoiler-tastic after the jump, so you might find out.

So the story starts out with Sean, an unemployed handyman who’s about to lose his house; his son, Conner (eighteen); and their dog, Bojangles. He meets a woman who goes by “Laurie” off Craigslist at a bar who insists that he go for a drive with her and they end up getting into an accident (which she causes on purpose) that leaves Sean in chronic pain and addicted to painkillers.

Linnea (fifteen) moves from Ohio to live with her dad, Art, because there’s been a school shooting at her high school in which her step-sister dies (which her step-father blames her for). Art’s downstairs neighbor, Christie is Mrs. Foster’s (the aforementioned rich old woman) nurse whose husband just died (causing the house to get burglarized by Conner who was in the neighborhood looking for work).

Conner and Linnea meet. They eat a burrito and start quasi-dating. Sean loses the house and wanders around homeless while Conner, thinking about robbing the Foster house again, gets taken in by Mrs. Foster and made her chauffeur/handyman/gopher. Art has a failed relationship with a fellow professor named Beata.

So at around page 224, Mrs. Foster finally recruits Christie into being the head of “The Humanity Project” which has the effervescent goal of helping humanity, but no one can really define what humanity is. Eventually (like a hundred pages later, it felt), Mrs. Foster in a very stereotypical kind of naive-rich-person kind of way asks the question of whether or not you can pay people to be good and states that THIS is what she wants the Project to do.

Having no idea what to do with that pronouncement, Christie goes to the Project’s lawyer who suggests she put together a conference–to invite sociologists and economists and a Deepak Chopra-esque guru who is coincidentally going to be in town, so the conference can happen while he’s around and he can be the keynote speaker. That’s probably the only convenient thing to happen in the entire book.

The conference goes off mostly without a hitch–Scottie, a guy who had been at the original planning meeting for the Project, but was not seen since, shows up at the project with a bunch of homeless people expecting to be turned away, but Christie brings them all in and lets them eat the catered dinner and listen to not-Chopra speak.

Then Christie goes with Conner to find his dad homeless and, having had another car wreck, and they move to Washington state. Or Oregon. At this point, I can’t remember and don’t want to open the book again to check.

Oh, and you hazily find out that the crazy “Laurie” lady is the mom of Linnea’s school shooter. There’s also a section wherein the focus is Mrs. Foster’s daughter that I found strange because at no other point in the book is anything in her point of view.

But what drove me crazy…what really drove me crazy…is that, sure, yeah, everyone has moments (even long moments) when they feel completely disconnected from everything around them. For me, it usually happens when I’m out late at night and there’s a lot of people talking around me. For everyone in this book, it HAPPENS ALL THE TIME. I think that Thompson wanted us to understand how each character was thinking, but no one is that introspective all the time. Not even the Dalai Lama in his little meditation room. Not even.

I mean, I’m sure some of the hipsters who cluster around colleges and keep independent coffee shops in business think they’re that introspective, but three hipsters in a room does not equal a salon.

But even so, I’ve read a lot of navel-gazing literature and even that could have been forgiven if it had actually attempted to answer the question Mrs. Foster proposed instead of doing exactly what Christie and the board of the Project had done and held a conference.

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