It takes a skilled author to create flawed characters that interest you and cause you to empathize with them even if you don't necessarily sympathize with them. But in Jean Thompson's new novel, The Humanity Project, a meditation on the flaws that make us human and an examination of whether or not we can redeem ourselves after doing something wrong, she does just that. I don't know that I'd want to spend any appreciable amount of time with any of these characters, but they definitely intrigued me enough to keep reading about them.
Linnea Kooperman survives the trauma of a shooting in her high school, but her guilt about surviving (among other things) leads her into more emotional troubles and unstable behavior than her mother and stepfather can handle, so they send her to California to live with her estranged father, Art, whom she hasn't seen since she was very young. Art has never quite grown up himself, a fact which has hampered him from significant success career-wise or relationship-wise, so he is ill-prepared for the sudden responsibilities of being a full-time parent, especially to a challenging teenager like Linnea. Art's neighbor, Christie, is a nurse constantly searching for her psychic center, when she is challenged by one of her patients, Mrs. Foster, who wants Christie to run The Humanity Project, a nebulous charitable foundation with the somewhat auspicious mission of trying to make humanity better.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Foster's new handyman/houseboy, Conner, has problems of his own. He had to short circuit completing his education and pursuing a future when his father is injured in an accident and becomes addicted to painkillers. Conner finds it difficult having to switch roles and responsibilities with his father, and often wishes he could just go back to a "normal" lifefinish high school, go to college, pursue romantic relationships, and have a typical future everyone else seems to. His interactions with Linnea perplex him, frustrate him, and yet give him the opportunity to confide in someone else about some of the burdens he faces.
Each of the characters' lives intersect in many different ways, and Thompson explores the idea of what makes us good or bad, and can people truly be classified as one or the other? It's an interesting concept, and Thompson weaves an interesting story, but it never quite hooked me the way I hoped it would. I kept expecting something significant to happen, to feel as if the story Thompson was telling led me to answers for one of the many questions she explores. It wasn't the characters' flaws that alienated me; it was the fact that the characters never fully opened up until the very end of the story, if at all.
I read Thompson's last book, The Year We Left Home, just about two years ago, and as with that book, nothing earth-shattering happens (much like life for most people), but her writing is still worth reading.