The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald
I saw Lisa Grunwald’s The Irresistible Henry House reviewed in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, and the concept of a “practice baby” absolutely blew my mind. Who on earth thought it was a good idea to let college home economics departments adopt children and use them as practice for students? I almost thought it wasn’t true. But it absolutely is, as Grunwald points out in a note at the end, and she wanted to explore how much that screws up a person. (In reality, the babies were adopted by real families when they were two, but still, you know, that’s messed up.) While I had to return the book the first time I rented it from the library (somebody else wanted to read it), I finally managed to get my hands on The Irresistible Henry House.
The Irresistible Henry House concerns itself with the life and times of the titular Henry House. Initially meant to be a college home economics “practice baby”, Henry was raised by the head of the home economics program at Wilton College, Martha Gaines, and practically every practice mother that came through the school. While this unusual upbringing blesses Henry with an understanding of women, it also leaves him incapable of making any true connections. As Henry grows up, avoiding commitment as easily as a shark avoids drowning, he tries to find a place to belong–but he’ll need to confront his failings if he ever hopes to do so.
Grunwald’s writing reminds me a bit of Michael Chabon–while I think Chabon is the superior writer, she has a similar eye for telling detail. The novel starts off with Martha Gaines bringing Henry home after a forced sabbatical, and Grunwald’s eye for detail gives us a very compact richness. In ascribing college campuses “leafy security”, you absolutely understand what she’s trying to get across. Her command of the various decades Henry lives and works through is excellent. Some of the advance praise on the back of the edition I rented compared Henry to Forrest Gump, which applies mildly; Henry manages to work at Walt Disney Animation Studios (another reason I picked up the book) and later works on Yellow Submarine, but it’s all very plausible. Henry is very low on the pecking order and meets Disney himself almost by accident, and Yellow Submarine needed animators so bad they were looking for them in the States. Grunwald is very good at capturing the atmosphere of a place. While Wilton fades out towards the end, we watch as it evolves from a very traditional postwar women’s college to a more modern women’s college. Southern California is especially well rendered, as is London in the thick of the Swinging Sixties, the only place Henry ever feels a real fondness for.
Grunwald’s eye for detail allows for fleshing out plenty of characters, despite the fact we only get the story from the perspectives of Henry, Martha, and Betty, one of his first practice mothers. Each of the women in Henry’s life are briefly but thoughtfully sketched; Annie, an animation model at Walt Disney Animation Studios, was one of my favorites, but the main non-mothering woman in Henry’s life is Mary Jane, his only childhood friend and the sole woman Henry cannot charm or seduce. As a character, she’s wonderful, and I enjoyed her relationship with Henry. Martha is a disappointed woman who watches as the childcare techniques she espouses are tossed aside, and essentially starts dissolving as the college leaves her in the dust. Betty, a woman with plenty of plans but little actual ambition, gives us a look at New York in postwar America. Both women, in Henry’s view, fail him as he searches for a place to belong–Martha is too smothering, and Betty is too flighty.
While I can’t really say I liked Henry’s attitude towards women, I appreciated it. Henry is a womanizer who loses interest in women after he sleeps with them; that cannot be denied. But it’s all tied up in his need for approval, as learned by being mothered by a rotating pack of mothers. A woman’s interest is a woman’s approval, in Henry’s mind, and Henry views sex as the ultimate approval. The novel is very clear that Henry is messed up. While we never know if it’s nature or nurture, Henry cannot create things on his own, despite being a very talented artist. While working on Yellow Submarine, he watches his fellow animators come up with strange monsters while his canvas remains blank. Henry, after discovering the truth of his origins, also longs for somewhere to belong, which is always connected to his art and those who oversee him in it. I enjoyed watching Henry grow, as well as realize and accept his own failings–while I won’t reveal the catalyst for that, it’s cleverly done. Any novel worth its salt is about character development, and The Irresistible Henry House delivers on that front. While it does fail to go that extra mile for me, it’s an absolutely solid book.
Bottom line: The Irresistible Henry House wonderfully examines the repercussions of being raised as a “practice baby”, specifically Henry’s inability to form lasting connections. Grunwald writes with a wonderful sense of place and a lovely eye for detail, and Henry’s character arc is great–as is exploring animation during the 1960s and Mod London. Quite a good read.
I rented this book from the public library.