Review: The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald
Author: Lisa Grunwald
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Release Date: March 16th, 2010
Publisher: Random House
Source: Personal Copy
During the first half of the 20th century, young college women across the country participated in home economics classes that taught the basic domestic duties needed to run a proper household. Part of the teaching included practice houses where women would take turns caring for an infant in order to learn the 'proper' way to raise a child. Often these children were lent to the school by local orphanages and were later adopted by parents who believed the child was raised using the most cutting edge child rearing theories.
Like the other so-called House babies before him, he was expected to stay for two years and be tended to in week-long shifts by a half dozen practice mothers. In earnest, attentive rotations, they would live and sleep beside him as they learned the science of child rearing - feeding and diapering, soothing and playing - until it was time to pass him on to the next devoted trainee.The practice, unfathomable in today's society, provided the basis for Lisa Grunwald's novel The Irresistible Henry House. After doing research into the subject, Grunwald began wondering what became of these practice babies once they grew up. How did they adjust to life after being raised by multiple people during the critical years of their psychological development? This novel is a fictional attempt to answer such questions.
Henry House is the tenth practice baby to enter the program at Wilton college. Brought home by strict no-nonsense instructor Martha Gaines, Henry is the youngest practice baby to be used, and Martha quickly develops an attachment to the affectionate child. Over the course of the academic year, seven co-eds share the responsibilites of taking care of the practice house, and Henry draws each of them in with his engaging eyes and irresistible smile. However, in an interesting turn of events, Martha adopts Henry at the end of the two years instead of placing him back with the orphanage. Now called Henry Gaines, he lives in the upstairs of the practice house with his new 'mother' and tries to navigate growing up in such an unorthodox environment.
I first heard about Grunwald's novel after listening to her interview on NPR's All Things Considered. My curiosity with the subject prompted me to pick up this book. The fact that practice babies actually existed in such institutions as Cornell University is immensly fascinating. The Irresistible Henry House provides an excellent job painting a picture of mid-century America and centers around an intriguing plot. Unfortunately, I can't say the same thing about the execution of the story. I thought that Grunwald's prose was well written and consise, but there were too many plot lines, some of which never seemed to go anywhere or have an immediate impact on the narrative. Also, the middle of the book which focused on Henry's teen years dragged a bit for me, and it wasn't until Henry begins his first job with the Walt Disney company that the story picked up again.
As for the characters, I can't say that they were entirely likable. While this usually is an issue for me in novels, I thought the story justified the personalities. It's entirely conceivable that a man denied the necessary emotional attachments as a child would become a womanizer with the inability to make decisions or commitments. The character I was most fascinated by, even though her role was minor, was Ethel. She offered help to Henry when he needed it, but didn't expect anything in return or treat him like a child. I wish Grunwald had developed her character more and allowed her to play a larger part in the story.
Overall, The Irresistible Henry House provides an excellent examination of American views and pop culture during the 1950's and 1960's. This would be an excellent choice for a book club since much discussion would be generated about such a controversial topic. If you have any interest in the subject then I would definitely recommend this book. There are a few issues with storylines, but the basic idea and premise will provide much food for thought.