Can you pay people to be good? If so, what would it cost?
Jean Thompson’s newest novel, The Humanity Project, poses these questions before introducing a wide array of drastically different characters bound together with lose connections. Most of the story centers around Linnea, a teenage girl thrown off course by the shooting that takes place in her high school. Her reactionary, wild behavior causes her mother to send Linnea across the country to live with her father, Art, who she barely knows. Completely unprepared to raise a teenage daughter, Art searches for the help of his neighbor, who is busy working with a client to develop a charity aimed at creating good in the community.
This tangled web of characters actually works well at the start of the novel, as they are introduced one by one. However, Thompson seems to feel much more comfortable voicing some of the characters than others. Where Sean, a single father struggling with an addiction to painkillers, comes across with the perfect blend of self-loathing and apathy, Linnea sometimes sounds too much like a pre-packaged teenager.
As the novel progresses, the connections between the characters reveal themselves and grow. Unfortunately, instead of feeling profound, the addition of minor players serves to unnecessarily complicate the story. And the key is unnecessarily. Layer upon layer of plot eventually begins to work against a novel in some cases, especially when the main question – can you pay people to be good? – becomes an afterthought. The Humanity Project begins with an intriguing idea and solid characters, but loses itself under the weight of its own ambition.