Izzy Poole is nervous as she listens to Dr. Preston Grind, a thirty-something psychologist in New Balance running shoes, explain his new project. He’s looking for 10 families to take part in a 10-year study “to see if we can improve the way in which we raise children,” and he wants her to join.
Izzy is 19 and pregnant, and Dr. Grind’s project – which would group Izzy and her child with nine other families, who would all live together – “sounds like some kind of commune” to her. But she signs the paperwork. She’s in. She doesn’t know what else to do.
Thus begins the adventure of Kevin Wilson’s “Perfect Little World.” It’s the second novel from Wilson, who gave us a comically dysfunctional family of performance artists in his first novel, “The Family Fang,” in 2011. Here, Wilson deals with issues of family again – but instead of people who are bound together by blood and making the best of it, “Perfect Little World” features a group of strangers who agree to become family, for better or worse.
The story begins and ends with Isabel, known as Izzy. Young, single and pregnant with her high school art teacher’s baby, she doesn’t have a lot of options. With her minimum-wage job and no family help, she doesn’t know how she’ll make it.
Psychologist Preston Grind has spent years working on the theory that, as the traditional nuclear family becomes less standard, young children benefit from having a “village” of support from a whole network of caring adults. His colleagues think his work borders on “a kind of new-age therapy,” but he gets unexpected support from the widow of a man who turned a handful of discount stores into the largest retailer in the world. Brenda Acklen’s worth $19 billion, and she likes Grind’s ideas.
She offers to fund a study called the Infinite Family Project. Ten families will live together as one, raising their children as a group. Brenda Acklen pays to build a state-of-the-art compound on 450 acres outside Nashville.
Like Izzy, many of the other parents in the Infinite Family Project are selected because they don’t have a support network already. They need money, education, child care. They need the project as much as the project needs them.
And so they move into the compound, 19 parents and their children, and become one family. The babies live in a single nursery, where parents care for them in scheduled shifts. Meals are a group event. And as the children grow, they become one big, rambunctious group of brothers and sisters. Until they turn 5, they don’t even know which adults are their biological parents.
“It was a crazy idea to be included in something so obviously flawed and yet so idealistic and beautiful,” Izzy decides.
For such a crazy idea, it’s odd that once the families all move into the compound, the story becomes a bit predictable. But that doesn’t mean the reader won’t enjoy the ride.
Wilson is bold to write a book about parenthood with a female protagonist; through Izzy, he explores the pain of childbirth and the nearly overwhelming tugs of a maternal bond with a child who is considered the son of everyone in the group.
At dinner one night, Izzy watches as another mother feeds cooked carrots to her son, who gazes up at the other woman’s face. “There was the sharpest, smallest pain in Izzy’s heart,” watching her own son bonding with another mother.
The story at times feels weighed down with so many characters hovering on the periphery. The members of the Infinite Family blend together, and the reader may end up flipping frequently to the front of the book, where a family tree matches up the couples and their biological children.
But the core group of characters is strong and memorable. Izzy, the group’s youngest, is a smart and endearing survivor. And Preston Grind has a complicated history, but he cares about the Infinite Family far beyond their research value. He may need a family more than anyone he’s studying.
And “Perfect Little World” speaks to a system that isn’t working – parents who struggle to find child care and a good job, who try to get through a demanding world without a support network. It’s a world we recognize, where a single mom working full time at a restaurant can’t earn enough to support a child.
Brenda Acklen, the billionaire, addresses the problem directly: “There are safety nets, but so many children slip right through them or they never even reach them. It seems to me that there must be a wider net, to make sure that every child is loved and cared for.”
The Infinite Family Project is just one attempt to create that wider net. To the last page, “Perfect Little World” is a rumination on families – what they can look like, why we need them and how they should be defined. Family is far more than a biological bond; that’s not a groundbreaking idea. But Wilson has found a lovely new way of telling readers something they know by heart.
“Perfect Little World”
By Kevin Wilson
Ecco, 352 pages
Author Kevin Wilson will be reading from “Perfect Little World” and signing books this week at:
▪ 7 p.m. Wednesday, Quail Ridge Books, Raleigh.
▪ 7 p.m., Thursday, Regulator Bookshop, Durham.