By Leah Greenblatt
Updated January 22, 2017 at 01:01 AM EST

What if mankind could build a better baby formula? Not some new, super-fortified liquid but an actual blueprint—scientific tenets designed to steer newborns through the choppy straits of toddlerhood and adolescence and deposit them safely, gently on the shores of maturity? That question drives nearly every character at the center of Kevin Wilson’s cockeyed modern fairy tale, though it doesn’t, in the end, seem of nearly as much interest to the author himself.

Or at least the answers don’t: Like his cult 2011 best-seller, The Family Fang, Wilson’s Perfect Little World finds its bliss in the vast disconnect between people’s best intentions and where they land—and all the spectacular ways they manage to sabotage and misdirect themselves in between.

At 19, Isabelle Poole has already made a mess of her young life. Swept up in a secret affair with Hal Jackson, her dreamy but unstable high school art teacher, she realizes too late that he is entirely unprepared for an unplanned pregnancy. Home offers no safety net—her mother is dead and her father, perpetually parked in the living-room Barcalounger, is essentially an alcoholic sock monkey—and her part-time job at the local barbecue pit will never pay the bills for two. But Hal’s wealthy, embarrassed parents suggest another option: an immersive long-term study founded by a groundbreaking therapist named Preston Grind and entirely funded by an eccentric local billionaire. In the intimate, nestlike setting of the Infinite Family Project, 10 lucky infants and their parents will come together to live and learn as one unit, blind but willing subjects in a decadelong experiment in cooperative child-rearing. To the outside world, the group is mostly a curiosity: Some picture a benign commune; others a loopy cult of walled-off weirdos and weekly orgies. For Dr. Grind, the Family’s measured benevolence is a direct response to his own chaotic upbringing, and for Izzy, the project’s lone single mother, it’s nothing less than a lifeline. (What it means for the other adult participants and their offspring is harder to parse; despite a handy diagram up front, they remain largely interchangeable.)

Though heady concepts of nature and nurture dance around the edges, they never quite penetrate Wilson’s Little World. Instead, his story is like the Project: snug, quirky, and engagingly imperfect. B+

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