The Humanity Project by Jean Thompson, as the title suggests, takes on big issues about the state of the world we live in. Poverty, violence, environmental degradation. It seems as though it is aiming to be in the category of really big American novels, the likes of which Jonathan Franzen so comfortably inhabits. Unfortunately, The Humanity Project falls short. That doesn’t mean it is not a good novel, but I think it is trying to be a great novel and doesn’t quite make it.
Most of the characters in The Humanity Project are lost souls, who at the beginning of the novel they seem utterly unconnected. There is a teenager who witnesses a horrible tragedy, a single father who goes out on a blind date, the nurse that lives in the apartment below him, a rich retired man on the verge of death. They are connected by a sense of futility and hopelessness. They are just ordinary people and yet the world seems poised to get them. In spite of the ordinariness of the characters, they are rather intriguing. They propel the story forward and although their stories do not always end happily, their endings are satisfying.
Perhaps the largest problem the novel has is its title. The of a Humanity Project is not even introduced until 130 pages into the novel and it is the idea of a Humanity Project that seems not very well developed. It is a great title, but lacks in fulfillment. I believe with a little bit more time and editing, this could have been a much better book. It has the ingredients of a great book, but its potential is not fully met.
Who would like this book? In many ways The Humanity Project is a quintessentially American novel. It tackles large contemporary issues and tries to comment on America writ large by focusing on a few ordinary individuals. Although I initially compared The Humanity Project to Jonathan Franzen, early Wally Lamb may be a more apt comparison. Though The Humanity Project strives for high brow grand themes, the particular and the popular may be a more comfortable audience for it. Before reading this book I had never even heard of Jean Thompson. She is, however, an American writer of some acclaim. I may not read her again in the future, but I will look out for what she produces next.