The many protagonists in Jean Thompson’s The Humanity Project are, for the most part, complete messes: They’re broke, lonely, adrift, and traumatized; they’ve seen their dreams sour and their luck dissipate. A few don’t even make it past the first 50 pages alive.
But “humanity” isn’t just a vague focus of the charitable foundation begun by one of the novel’s few financially solvent characters, a slightly batty Bay Area widow named Mrs. Foster. It’s something that Thompson infuses into every sentence, striking true, clear notes whether she’s writing about the hissing colony of feral cats trapped inside Mrs. Foster’s palatial house or the inner life of Linnea, a sullen Ohio teenager sent to live with her long-absent father in Marin County after she survives a brutal school shooting. The people Linnea meets there — including Conner, a handsome, taciturn boy whose relationship with his invalid father drives every choice he makes, and her downstairs neighbor Christie, a thirtysomething nurse struggling to feel connected to anything — aren’t in much better shape than she is, even though they wake up every day in a place famous for its embarrassment of natural riches and New Age enlightenment. Though the project of the title draws all of them toward one another, it’s not really the point of the novel, or at least not one that Thompson fully follows through on. She’s too interested in threading through these patchwork lives, and telling their stories in a way that doesn’t offer resolutions so much as a messy, imperfect kind of grace. And what’s more human than that? A-
”We were losing the future that had been promised to us…. But we could reinvent ourselves brand-new. New! We had always liked new things.”