Tennessee author Kevin Wilson tells an intriguing story about a “family” that raises 10 children collectively.
Perfect Little World begins in Tennessee with one of its protagonists, Isabelle Poole, fresh out of high school and pregnant with her art teacher’s baby. She intends to keep it and sees the baby as an opportunity to make something out of her life. She tried her best to remain invisible in high school. Her mom died a couple years earlier, and her dad is an alcoholic. Luckily, she had her art teacher and boyfriend, Hal, to lean on. Hal had some mental illness but allowed Izzy to take care of him during his outbreaks. She developed her kind-hearted qualities from caring for him, and with a baby on the way, she is confident in her caretaking abilities. However, Hal does not want the baby or anything to do with it and leaves Izzy with the choice between him or the baby. Izzy chooses her baby.
Dr. Preston Grind, another protagonist, has a unique background. His parents were two of the most famous child psychologists during the 1980s. They raised Preston on a belief they called “the constant friction method,” where they constantly put him through stressful situations that forced him to learn how to cope in difficult times. So when his parents died, as well as his wife and son a couple years later, he easily moved on.
Dr. Grind spent his life studying family, even though he no longer has one. When a billionaire contacts him, he has the opportunity to create his own “family”—a study of what would happen when 10 children are raised collectively, without identifying their biological parents. Dr. Grind calls this project the “Infinite Family.” He predicts this opportunity will help couples become parents and provide them with the supplies and knowledge to be successful caretakers, which is exactly what Izzy needs.
Infinite Family starts out great. The parents get along well and, aside from a few small hiccups, everyone is able to understand their roles in the family. The children surpass every expectation and grow to be brilliant. The parents are given the opportunity to continue their jobs, go to school or even work from the complex. Izzy used to work in a barbecue joint and has developed a natural talent for cooking, so she works under the complex’s chef. Izzy repeatedly describes how much she loves the people around her and how much she appreciates the support. She uses comparison of the “we” mentality from Faulkner’s story “A Rose for Emily” to explain her way of interpreting how much the family cares for each other. When a couple has some relationship troubles, the family thinks they should stay together not only for their benefit but for the benefit of the entire group.
It reminded her of how everyone in the complex began to use ‘we’ in place of ‘I,’ the way it seemed that your own desires were somehow those of the people around you.”
However, things start to get somewhat difficult when there are growing tensions between some of the couples, and the parents begin to question whether it was a good idea to join the project in the first place. There is always the constant and eerie sensation of the family having a cult-like feel. Of course, the group has a commune feel to it in the beginning, with everyone having their own roles and collectively keeping the place running, but as the book goes on, this mentality begins to makes more sense. All of the parents had experienced trouble in their lives, and this project gives them a sense of security. To outsiders, though, Infinite Family is too strange to comprehend.
Perfect Little World deals with a lot of mental health issues through the characters’ individual struggles, which are related to their past or how they were raised. We see the struggle of emotions when Izzy tries to combat her romantic feelings for Dr. Grind—or when some of the parents start to become romantically involved with other parents. There is also Dr. Grind’s difficulty with stressful decisions that he must face over and over. Dr. Grind commits self-harm when he finds himself too stressed by the weight of their problems, a coping strategy he developed because of the way he was raised.
Overall, Kevin Wilson (who also wrote The Family Fang) does an incredible job of telling a compelling story while addressing important social issues. The different perspectives of Izzy and Dr. Grind allow for a deeper understanding of underlying themes. This story is strange and quirky, but also thought-provoking. It really makes you think about the concept of family, how necessary it is, and how an individual’s upbringing can affect his or her adult life.
Dr. Grind, for example, was placed in constant turmoil throughout his childhood and now faces the struggle of how to cope. Izzy experienced loneliness and isolation, causing her to be a cautious but self-providing and caring adult. Both Dr. Grind and Izzy experienced great loss throughout their lifetime, which made them reluctant to even think of the idea of one day leaving the complex and each other.
Maybe the idea of an Infinite Family really is a perfect little world.