Friday, May 17, 2013

"The Humanity Project," by Jean Thompson

I “discovered” Jean Thompson’s fiction in the past few years, and was very impressed by it, but then she disappeared under my radar for a while. She doesn’t seem to get a lot of reviews and publicity. I recently saw a brief mention of her new novel, “The Humanity Project” (Blue Rider Press/Penguin, 2013), obtained a copy, and just finished reading it. I was not bowled over by it, but I did find the interweaving stories of the various characters engaging. I also liked the story’s being set in Marin County (just north of San Francisco), where I live; although the author lives in Illinois, she must have spent quite a bit of time in Marin, as the descriptions of the local towns, roads, parks, schools, and other sites are quite frequent and detailed. The title of the book comes from the name of a rather quixotic and unfocused foundation set up by Mrs. Foster, an older woman with money she is determined to give away (much to the distress of her adult daughters). Other characters include her assistant, Christie; Christie’s neighbor Art, whose teenaged daughter Linnea (whom he has barely seen for years) moves across the country to live with him after a horrific school shooting traumatizes her in her old home; and the beaten down, very unlucky Sean and his resourceful son Conner. The psychological and social aspects of these characters and their relationships are well portrayed and intriguing. Perhaps because there isn’t a clear arc to the plot, the book at times, and even at the end, feels a bit inert. This is a book that is definitely about character and social/moral questions rather than about plot. Questions about how and why some people have more opportunities and material wealth and some have so much less, and what should be done about it, are certainly timely. There is an air of low-key hopelessness that pervades much of the book; fortunately, there are a couple of cautiously high notes at the end of the novel.

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