The Humanity Project, by Jean Thompson. Published by Blue Rider Press, 2013. Literary Fiction.
So, I became a fan-for-life of novelist Jean Thompson after 2011's luminous The Year We Left Home, and I jumped at the chance to review her latest, The Humanity Project. It's a little more outlandish than her last book, a little less grounded in ordinary life and more about people on the margins of American society, but it's just as wonderful in its own way.
Set in the present day and mainly in California, the book starts with a car accident that in one way or another will shape the lives of all the book's characters. Down-on-his-luck blue collar guy Sean goes to a bar to meet a woman for a drink. On the way back, he's in a horrific crash that lands him in worse shape than before. His son Conner, a smart kid trying to do the right thing, tries to take care of his dad but they're broke and basically homeless. He goes to work as a handyman for the wealthy, elderly Mrs. Foster, who is in the process of growing a foundation, called the Humanity Project. Her nurse, Christie, lives next door to Art, a lonely bachelor and unwitting father caring for his teen daughter Linnea, who is traumatized following her survival of a school shooting.
Everyone in this book is walking wounded, in one way or another. Conner is in the unenviable position of having to care for his parent. Sean means well but he's hooked on pain medicine and falling apart. Art, who never intended to raise his daughter, can't relate to her and can't help her. She falls into a loose group of kids roaming San Francisco and forms a tentative bond with Conner. Mrs. Foster earns the consternation of her grown daughter with her foundation, which has no clear mission but to make the world a better place. A noble ambition, to be sure, and Mrs. Foster does make the world better for these characters, though not in the way she intended.
I really enjoyed this book. It covers a shorter space in time than Year but Thompson shows the same warmth and compassion towards her characters. My favorite character is Christie. Mrs. Foster makes Christie the head of her foundation, and for a while we think Christie's found a purpose. But when she does discover the purpose of her life, it turns out it's right there all along, where she least expects to find it. Each character has his or her own story but the way Thompson brings them together is sweet and tender and very memorable. Once again Thompson creates a rich portrait of contemporary American life in all its strangeness, wondrousness and truth.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review.