What if you had the chance to free your unborn child from all genetic imperfections? Sure, you may say all you really want is for your child to be healthy, and it doesn’t matter if he’s the smartest or most good-looking boy in the world. But what if all those options were also available to you, at no additional cost? Would you be able to turn down this chance, and risk having your child grow up unpopular, or unable to realize his dream of becoming a doctor, and know you had your chance to change that? Even if you do decide to keep him as healthy and normal as possible, where do you stop — with the rare genetic disease your first child died of, or remove even the genes for diabetes and cancer and, hey why not, asthma?

There are no easy answers, and Peter James’ Perfect People bombards us with all these difficult questions. This book just blew me away. Wow. I was reading this book at a mall, and I kept gasping or shaking my head every few pages. I started tweeting my reactions, then had to stop myself because I realized that if I kept going, I’d flood my Twitter feed with comments like, “OMG. This chapter made me gasp out loud.” “Oh no! This chapter made me gasp even louder!” “Now what?” “Hmmm… No idea what I’d do…” Exciting reading experience for me, monotonous for my followers.

James takes us right into the lives of John and Naomi Klaesson, who do get that opportunity to design their baby. Their four year old son had died of a rare genetic disorder, so they pool their life savings and go to geneticist Dr Leo Dettore, who can design their next baby’s genetic makeup. I love how James depicts the difficulty of John and Naomi’s dilemma. Naomi insists she just wants as normal a child as possible — if their son is genetically enhanced to have vastly superior intelligence or athletic prowess, will other kids still want to play with him, or will they shun him as a freak? John, a scientist, is afraid that if they turn down genetic enhancements and if designer babies become the norm, then their future son will lose a valuable competitive advantage. I love the combination of parental ambition and desire to nurture. The scenes at the clinic could’ve been very science fiction, but James’ focus on Naomi and John’s fears kept the story feeling very real and immediate.

Naomi and John go home, excited about the soon-to-be-born son they’d requested. Then they go to get an ultrasound and realize Dr Dettore may have made one, very basic mistake with their child. If he got such a simple detail wrong, what else could he have gotten wrong? Worse, even if they do find out other details had been messed up, what will they do about it? Again, James offers no easy answers. The pro-life/pro-choice debate gets even more complicated when this is a baby you’d planned to the very last detail, and now you don’t even know what exactly is growing inside you. A normal, healthy baby, a super child, or an evil baby Frankenstein’s monster? I like that James didn’t have either John or Naomi firmly on one side of the debate. They’re both confused and scared, and end up making mistakes. They’re all too flawed and relatable, and I was completely immersed in their story because even I couldn’t see an easy way out.

Minor spoiler (this is one that James’ own website provides, but if like me, you want zero spoilers, skip to the next paragraph): Naomi ends up giving birth to twins. Super intelligent twins, who at three prefer to surf the Internet than watch a clown, and who might in fact already be more intelligent than their parents. I remember watching I Am Sam, and feeling bad for Dakota Fanning’s character, who seemed more like the parent than the child, and for Sean Penn’s character, who tried as hard as he could but just could not keep up with his daughter. I felt the same way for the Klaesson family in Perfect People, but worse, because while Dakota Fanning and Sean Penn’s characters could look to other adults for guidance, the Klaesson family really had no one to turn to. As parents, how could Naomi and John best provide for such children? Again, never any easy answers, and the story kept me completely engrossed.

To complicate matters even further, Naomi and John are pursued by the Disciples of the Third Millenium, a fanatical religious group that believes designer babies are spawns of the devil. In true Peter James fashion, the author even takes us into the mind of one of the Disciples, who needs to kill the Klaesson family before he can marry the woman he loves. To be honest, this subplot just felt flat to me. Despite the background information on the Disciple’s life and his romantic subplot, a lot of his thoughts and actions read like standard thriller fare, a generic religious fanatic. To be fair, it may have been an accurate portrayal, with the Disciple’s single-mindedness about his group’s mission. Also, it’s certainly realistic that fanatical religious groups would want to destroy designer baby families. Still, with John and Naomi’s story already so mind-blowing, and already raising so many fascinating dilemmas, I almost wish the Disciples of the Third Millenium hadn’t been included at all. Or at the very least, wish they’d been included only as backdrop bad guys, providing external conflict without getting chapters of their own.

Perfect People is such an amazing book. The psychological thrills are almost non-stop, the emotional ups and downs unrelenting, and the ending almost made me cry. I received this ARC from Harper Collins at the fish and chips party to celebrate Peter James’ ITV3 People’s Bestseller Dagger Award (thanks HCC!), so I don’t know if this is available in the final book, but I wish there was an author note with a glimpse of James’ research into real world designer babies. Fascinating topic, definitely, and in Perfect People, James gives this scientific innovation very human faces.