Perfect Little World coverWould You Live as a Science Experiment for Your Child?

Author: Kevin Wilson

As I sit her today with the window open, the comforting city sounds of building and chatting backlit by the hum of bustling cars, computer balanced on my feet as I stretch into one of my favorite yoga poses (butterfly position), I get that dreamy eyed, captured heart feeling from thinking back on this novel and my experience reading it. Between work and newly married life, plus an ever-complicating tide of hobbies and responsibilities, it’s been about a month since I read this book – which shows how far behind I am in my longing to discuss and share the experience of my reading. Yet, this story still stays with me, in the magical way the books and literature musings would crowd my uncomplicated head in my pre-teen years when I haunted the library and lounged outside reading, opening mystery worlds and sojourning. And that’s what Perfect Little World, introduced to me by my beloved Book of the Month does to me. It invokes those days of wondering and openness, the questioning of someone not yet burdened by adult knowledge and burnt-out curiosity. It’s a book about possibilities, crazy experiments, and the longing for family and relationship hushed by the complicity of a group who wants to know the answer but is afraid to admit that they don’t. It revives our need to question, to wonder, and to search, as though we haven’t been doing this in a low key, desperate way our whole lives. The only difference is, Perfect Little World makes it magical and I’m not even quite sure how. Something about the imagination and the cadence, the atmosphere and the closeness to our real world overlapped with the absurdity of scientific curiosity loosed.

It all begins with Isabelle, the strong but silent type who after having an affair with her high school art teacher, has graduated in more ways than one. She is no longer deluded that her teacher, a man with his own problems and fears, will support or help her. Now out of  high school, she’s shoved into a pitiless adult world by pregnancy and the strength to fight for this new life, this being, that despite all the complications, she wants. Could this be the source of love and connection? On her own, with an absentee, drunken father and a disappeared paramour, Isabelle doesn’t have the funds for the life in her. Unless she does something drastic and takes the offer of the enigmatic Dr. Grind who, for ten years of her life, will lock her into The Infinite Family Project, an experiment funded by an eccentric billionaire orphan who, although in her nineties, is still searching to find out just what family means. Ten families will live together in an otherworldly, terraformed assimilation of buildings, and with the help of scientists, psychologists, and other costly “ists” will raise their ten children in a group atmosphere, to create a larger collective family. The hook – the “parents” of each child are not revealed to the children, who are shared around as a group. No individual mother-child relationships. But, for Izzy, it’s the only way to have this child, period and Izzy is a fighter.

The seemingly Utopian idea, bolstered by an ungodly amount of funding and a scientist unleashed (and secretly trying to overcome the loss of his own beloved family and his traumatic childhood) has all the shine of an exciting new world. Yet underneath the placidity, the money, the beauty, the support of every kind, the bitter sting resides, waiting like a scorpion in the dark. Izzy wants to know and be known by her child and she’s not the only one whose instinct could threaten the project.

As the years unfold, tension mounts. Families disintegrate. Close associations breed both contempt and unhealthy relationships. There are affairs, there are bouts of madness, there are resentments, and there is above all that beating longing set in the heart of loneliness that still exists despite the fact that this Infinite Family Project, which sounds so good on paper, gives you everything you could ever want or need to be a good parent.

Along the way, Izzy and Dr. Grind arise as the predominant focus of Perfect Little World. We expect that this conflicted scientist will be the villain, yet in a way he is a surprisingly empathetic anti-hero. Haunted in his own rights, well meaning, and intensely emotional behind his seemingly placid calm, he becomes a central figure that readers root for. We see the badness in the project, the problems, yet he almost makes us believe and we want his success more than anything else, a salve to all his heart-breaking, unfocused love.

Izzy herself is both observer and observed and it’s through her level head that we see the inner workings of the facility. Her doubts and fears, her need and keenness make her a complicated heroine who is at times frustrating yet always open, always available and understandable. As the years unfold, her connection to Dr. Grind creates a strangeness that binds Perfect Little World and ties together the loose threads of a story that is essentially life. How do you reach out and make connection? Is it something you’re born with or something you can make? If you can forge it, then how?

The side characters, i.e. the other families, are all dynamically interesting in their own weird little ways and readers are involved with the gossip, the affairs, the surprises, and the out-lashings because we sort of root for this project even though we question if it’s even ethical – even right (and guess what, don’t expect to get an answer to that.) The only ripple in an otherwise steady pond of intense storytelling is trying to remember this big cast of names and how they individually pose problems for the project, and sometimes for Izzy. You’ll be scrolling back pages to try and remember who so-and-so is and what they have been doing in the project, who they’re married to, and which one of the many children belongs to them. If only these side families could have been more vivid, if we could have jumped years less quickly and gotten to know them all a bit better, then the story would be perfect.

The conclusion is bittersweet and just as strange as the entire narrative. We don’t get the answers we need or want and at first this is annoying, but later as the book settles around our minds, we realize that really, isn’t that just inevitable? The ultimate truth of life is that you rarely ever have surety on anything, rarely ever can fully label something good or bad. You don’t get answers, but you still have to take chances. You still have to search, to question – that’s the haunting refrain of Perfect Little World.

–        Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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