Revisiting themes from his bestselling debut, “The Family Fang,” Wilson comments on the countless ways parents (especially celebrities) can damage their kids, intentionally or otherwise, and examines the mysterious forces that can make or break a family unit.
The book begins with Izzy Poole telling her high school art teacher, Hal, that she’s pregnant. Tomboyish and wickedly intelligent, Izzy may be the least typical teenager in Tennessee. She’s terrified of drawing attention to herself or outing Hal as the baby’s father. “As skilled as a robot at hiding her emotions,” Izzy’s default expectation is disappointment. For fun, she whittles.
Despite the age difference, Hal could be a poster model for the negative stereotype of hypersensitive millennials. He’s a neurotic, irresponsible failed artist coasting by on a trust fund. Of course, he panics under the news of Izzy’s pregnancy. Their romance seems hard to swallow until details emerge about Izzy’s late mom, a former beauty queen turned shut-in. Her brief but unforgettable appearance in the novel is a sublime junction of trashy and tragic: “[She] was working on a vague, book-length manuscript debunking history’s most famous UFO incidents … taking diet pills and amphetamines to stay awake.” The mixture of stimulants with her morbid obesity stopped her heart.
Hal’s blueblood mother, bent on avoiding a scandal, connects Izzy with Dr. Preston Grind, a well-known child psychologist and the book’s secondary protagonist. Soon Izzy is signing papers to join the Infinite Family Project, a scientific study funded by an aging retail heiress eager to prove the old aphorism, “It takes a village to raise a child.”
The pitch sounds like any harried parent’s dream invitation. Participants move to a resort-like complex in the middle of 450 woodland acres outside of Nashville, where a rotating team of professionals assist in caring for 10 newborns. Izzy, not exactly itching to raise a child on her minimum-wage restaurant salary, commits to a decade at the secluded, AstroTurf-covered campus. The only catch: For the first few years, the children can’t know who their biological parents are. Adults are required to give each child equal love and attention.
Izzy quickly comes to comprehend how surreal and challenging communal life can be, not only the loneliness but the dizzying demands of cooperative parenting. “It felt like she had ended a shift in a factory that had been imagined by Walt Disney, the bright colors and happy music overriding the weird fact that you were working on an assembly line that created superbabies.”
Wilson, who grew up in Winchester, Tenn., and teaches English at the Sewanee: The University of the South (itself a rather isolated refuge), provides just enough details about the futuristic setup for us to suspend disbelief and keep the pages turning.
Early in the novel, Izzy and Hal see a film “so layered and complicated that it offered … at least three mind-blowing twists in the first hour.” The line may sound like foreshadowing. It isn’t. Once the parents settle into their new roles as research subjects, the narrative unfolds slowly and with almost no twists in sight. Friendships form, along with rivalries and truncated romances. Sparks fly between Izzy and a cocky art student, then fizzle fast. New revelations concerning the impeccable Dr. Grind’s troubled childhood add new urgency — and empathy — to the situation, but his most shocking compulsions remain self-contained.
Only the largest personalities manage to stand out in the book’s supporting cast of nine couples, three research assistants, 10 toddlers and various staffers. A family tree at the beginning of the book helps clear up some of the confusion, though not the frustration.
After almost 20 years of “reality” television, most readers now know how to spot the troublemaker and potential villains quickly. True to formula, the defiant diva who balks at nursery rules eventually morphs into the resident drama mama — the bad apple who spoils the whole barrel.
Given the vivacious kookiness in the first third of the book, readers may expect Dr. Grind’s domestic experiment to explode in a grotesque, spectacular climax. Instead, the novel develops a curious appetite for sentimentality in its final act. Wilson drifts away from ingenious farce for the sake of more rote matters of envy and infidelity. Greed plays a role as well, with troubling revelations about the ultimate vision of the project’s corporate overlords.
In the end, “Perfect Little World” avoids pedantic warnings about the future of humanity, opting instead for more heartfelt insights into generation gaps and growing older. His utopia, Dr. Grind realizes, was “not unlike a real family, the ways you accepted the uncertainty and kept your heart open for whatever might follow.”
‘Perfect Little World’
By Kevin Wilson
$27, 352 pages