Rather than join her classmates in celebrating, the first thing Isabel Poole does after graduating from high school is tell her art teacher, Hal, that she’s pregnant. By him.
He responds poorly — the five stages of Hal’s reaction seem to be terror, ambivalence, drunkenness, violence, and disappearance.
Izzy is left adrift and feeling alone in her Tennessee town. She is certain she wants her baby, but is terrified of how to raise it with no family support, her mentally unstable mother having long since died and her father being an alcoholic. Her only friend is Mr. Tannehill, a 70-year-old coworker at the Whole Hog restaurant.
One day at work Mr. Tannehill picks up Izzy’s copy of a book of parenting advice and asks, “How can something be so simple and so complicated at the same time?”
His question serves as a handy thesis statement for novelist Kevin Wilson’s work so far. His first book, 2011’s “The Family Fang,” centers on a dysfunctional family headed by a pair of high-concept performance artists and what happens to an adult son and daughter when so much of their childhood was devoted to unreality.
In his second, “Perfect Little World,” Wilson widens the scope but focuses on the same questions that have preoccupied parents for millennia: What is the right way to raise children? Or, to paraphrase and sanitize the poet Philip Larkin, is it even possible not to mess them up, really?
Hal’s wealthy mother approaches Izzy with a proposal that includes hush money and a place in a friend’s child-development research project that will support Izzy and her child for a decade. Izzy agrees, partly out of fear of repeating her own parents’ mistakes.
The project is the brainchild of Dr. Preston Grind, a child psychologist whose child psychologist parents pioneered the “Constant Friction Method of Child Rearing,” based on the theory that the world is unforgiving, and children do best when raised to adapt: “Instead of being swaddled and kept warm in a crib, Preston would randomly be removed from his bed at various times during the night and placed on the floor, the temperature adjusted to make sleep uncomfortable. Regular feeding times were discouraged and sometimes meals lasted mere seconds.”
This is a mordant, only slightly exaggerated take on some of the more extreme parenting advice trends that pop up every so often, and so is Grind’s experiment. After his own terrifying childhood, Grind proposes a way for parents and babies to be surrounded by love, creating a community in which children are raised together and all consider themselves “members of a singular family.”
With financial backing from the elderly widow of a superstore magnate, Grind has created the Infinite Family Project, a compound housing 10 children all born within a few weeks of one another, their assorted parents (nine couples; Izzy the only single parent), three post-doctoral fellows, assorted caregivers and specialists, and an organic chef.
If the Constant Friction Method represents a dystopian fantasy of childhood, Grind’s Infinite Family Project is its mirror, a utopia. The campus looks like “a day care center for billionaires,” and there’s funding for parents to pursue educational degrees and artistic endeavors.
But utopias always contain the seeds of their unraveling. Among the project’s most difficult rules is that the children truly belong to everyone — none of them knows which family members are their actual mother and father.
It proves difficult for most of the parents to avoid yearning for their own baby. The members also worry that they’re becoming part of a cult — and that’s nothing compared to the curiosity and suspicion they face from the outside world. Some marriages fray; some partners stray. As the project’s 10 years tick by, problems threaten even this most intentionally happy family.
Wilson writes beautifully about parents and children, blending the keen social observation of Tom Perrotta or Meg Wolitzer with the deep, affectionate understanding for oddballs that has always been Anne Tyler’s territory. There’s sweetness, even when the book’s humor gets dark.
Wilson’s writing is especially strong when he takes the view of Izzy, a heartbreakingly real young woman for whom impending motherhood is fascinating and horrifying. “Why,” Izzy wonders, “when a woman became pregnant, weren’t people lining up on either side of her as she made her way through each day, wildly cheering her on like she was running the most important marathon in the world?”
Above all, although “Perfect Little World” pokes fun at the idea that anyone can plan for the ideal life, Wilson seems to suggest that by loving the people around us, however imperfect they or we may be, we can come closest to getting it right.
Perfect Little World
By Kevin Wilson
Ecco, 352 pp., $26.95