In 1946, America is in-between eras. With one foot in the detritus of WWII and the other nudging the Cold War, it is also an uncertain time for women who want a higher education. Soldiers return to procreate with their waiting wives, giving rise to the Baby Boomer generation. Motherhood is a hot topic, with Benjamin Spock garnering headlines for his pioneer theories of child rearing. He advocates a very tactile approach, which includes picking up the infant every time (s)he cries. This is diametrically opposed to the former approach of instilling a strict schedule and forcing the baby to conform to it, letting the baby cry until it is "time" to pick her or him up. In this supremely inventive and provocative novel, Grunwald creates a protagonist, Henry House, an in-between baby born with one foot in the strict schedule and the other in Dr. Spock, an orphan who is raised by not one mother but many "practice mothers" and one woman who pleads for his love. Adored by many but unable to love any ONE.
Henry is the tenth orphan sent to the Wilton College of Home Economics, where female students practice mothering skills in two-year rotations, taught by the firm and stern director, Martha Gaines. Every two years, a new orphan is sent as a "practice baby" for a half-dozen female students. Not only do they practice mothering, but they also learn to fix kitchen equipment, remove stains, balance a budget, and manage a household. Ironically, the program is a subversive defender of women with ambition. They learn chemistry, physics, economics, and engineering, among other challenging subjects. When the rotation is over, the babies are sent back to the orphanage and are hopefully adopted by a loving family. The women graduate and move on to their futures.
When Martha falls in love with Henry at first sight, she is emotionally transformed. She relaxes her rigid routine and secretly champions Dr. Spock's touchy-feely approach. And, in a surprising twist of fate, Henry becomes the first and only baby to stay and be raised at the practice house, with Martha as the primary caregiver and a succession of women vying for his love and attention. Conversely, Henry thrives on their adoration, and learns guile and charm early in his life, endearing himself to his many "mothers." He doesn't attach himself to the ultra-needy Martha, or any specific caregiver or peer. He learns to manipulate and gain power by extracting differentially from each "mother" and later uses similar techniques with children his age. However, at nursery school he meets Mary Ann, a beautiful little girl that becomes a constant, although interrupted, presence in his life.
If you have been schooled in attachment theory, you know that the first few years of a baby's life are critical. That is the time when a baby needs to develop a primary relationship. If this is disrupted, like in the case of the Wilton practice baby method, the baby may form maladaptive behaviors and fail to develop healthy attachments. In Henry's case, he consistently keeps everyone at arm's length. As he matures, he is filled with rage at his parents' desertion and is unable to love or affectionately bond with Martha or anyone else.
Henry is prepossessing, yet affable, and women are naturally drawn to him--his long, lean, angular body, soft full lips, and striking green eyes. Yet, he all but sucks the spirit out of women who get involved with him. He objectifies them and accumulates them with an uncanny indifference, seemingly without any dents to his hard shell or damage to his psychic wall. He closed up that opening years ago, as a toddler. He is intermittently cruel to Mary Ann and supercilious towards Martha. Ironically, he becomes an "in-between" animator by profession. The novel examines Henry's journey to find his heart and to feel it beating. The key is for Henry to find a source that leads to a towering self-reflection.
Grunwald's buoyant prose is as bewitching as Henry. Clear and crisp, it glides effortlessly, ripe with terse paradoxes, engaging us with radiant characters. The author's ingenious insights into human behavior and her ability to keep the reader off-balance but fastened to the story is truly inspired. She captures the atmosphere of the times, as we move from poodle skirts to mini-skirts, and from Howdy Doody to Hair. I have not read another novel that captures the liminal time and essence of attachment theory with such clarity and imagination.
The author's premise for this story was stirred by research into an actual "practice baby" house that was part of a Cornell University home economics program from 1919-1969.
on April 1, 2010
I wanted so badly to love this book, but it was not meant to be. The biggest problem I had was that I'd put it down and not care if I picked it up again. At first, I attributed this to the fact that I'd started it just before Christmas. By mid-January, however, I realized it was the book. After thinking about why that was so, I realized this book is 99% telling and 1% showing. Grunwald broke the cardinal rule for writers -- Show, don't tell!!
Clearly, based on other reviews, there are people who don't mind a telling book. If it were shorter, I might not have minded it, myself. Grunwald writes well and I enjoyed her descriptive scenes, particularly in California and London. What the telling does for me, however, is make me not care about any of the characters. The main characters are particularly annoying. By the end of the book, the only character I liked was Mary Jane. It had no intimacy for me. I didn't get to 'know' these characters, and learn about them that way. It was Lisa Grunwald telling me about these characters she knew. She was always telling me how they felt and what they thought. I never got the chance to learn these things myself. They became, for the most part, characters I didn't want to hear about.
Beyond my not getting to know the characters, I also got the feeling they were too 'scripted.' I don't get the feeling that Henry or Martha or Betty told Grunwald how (s)he felt about anything. Grunwald had a story to tell and made her characters fit the story. The fact that Peace was so much like Henry, even though she had been adopted, reinforced this 'make the character fit the story' sense. The biggest flaw I saw here was Henry's attitude to Martha. It didn't make sense to me at all. She was the one constant he'd had. Yes, he would be angry at her for lying to him. Yes, he'd want to run away with Betty. Yes, he'd likely want to leave home ASAP (or else become a 'mama's boy'). But, I think part of all of that, once he got over the initial anger at Martha for lying, would be, not because he had no feeling for her, but because he did have feelings and needed to get away from her smothering.
As I write this, I think maybe, possibly, Grunwald expected the reader to realize he actually did have feelings for Martha. I still believe that the telling manner of writing makes this much more difficult for the reader to see. If one gets to see Henry's emotions, rather than be told about them, one can then determine that he thinks he feels nothing for Martha, but actually really does.
Kudos to Grunwald for the ending. I tend to doubt that Henry would have made the realization about Mary Jane as young as he did, but her reaction was absolutely right. It is this ending, Henry's realization, that makes me wonder if everything we are told about how he feels about things is accurate, though it's all too vague. I sort of suspected that was how it would end for Henry and was really concerned that it would be a sappy ending. I was delighted it wasn't. It is this ending (along with the Disney and London settings, so well described) that made the book worth reading, for me.
If you like a literary style (I do) and don't mind telling (I do), go ahead and read this book. If you prefer action stories or at least a feeling of actually getting to know the characters, you probably won't care for this book.
THE IRRESISTIBLE HENRY HOUSE
We are introduced to one adorable little baby boy, namely Henry House, an orphan who is lucky enough to be selected to become one of many practice babies to live in a practice house at Wilton College. What does this mean for sweet and innocent little Henry? The situation is this -- for approximately two years, Henry will live at the practice house and have a bevy of young women students be his mommy. These young home ec girls will learn how to be mothers -- using Henry as their tool in learning. Henry -- and the babies before and after him -- will not have any one mother, but many, many mothers. He starts out at an early age winning the hearts of the ladies.
The one heart he warms and wins over though is one Martha Gaines, the woman in charge of this home ec project. Martha normally is more hard-hearted, but there is something about Henry that wins her over and she happy to keep Henry on to live with her.
While at best Henry and Martha's relationship can only be described as full of turmoil, Martha dotes on Henry to a point of being obsessive and desperate to win his love. Henry, meanwhile, having had so many mothers, has a real problem forming attachments to any one person and is not one to love or trust. For Henry, this is a real problem and will stay with him the remainder of his life.
We follow Henry's life through his baby years, school years, seeking employment, and always seemingly to be on the run and trying to find someone he can love and trust with his entire being. He tries to locate his birth mother and tries to distance himself from Martha. Martha is unrelenting in her pursuit of keeping Henry near and dear to her which makes Henry want to keep further away from her.
Henry is a talented artist and lands a job with the Disney studios. He never seems happy however and his life always seems lacking. He dates and discards numerous women in his pursuit of happiness.
Enjoy Henry's journey through his life trying to find joy, stability, and someone to love, all the while meeting many realistic and graphic characters. Does Henry find his birth mother? If he does, do they bond and become a happy family of sorts? Does any one woman make Henry feel whole? Read this book and find out!
What is amazing is that practice houses and practice babies really did exist at Cornell to name one such place. These practice baby programs originated in 1919 and lasted until the l960's. What effect did these programs have on the practice babies? Did these babies ever realize what the first few years of their being entailed? Did these programs have an ever-lasting effect on the lives of these children? Eventually these babies were returned to the supplying orphanage and hopefully were adopted into loving homes -- homes that possibly could erase any damage that had been done by not really being able to bond and be loved by any one person.
As Henry searches for answers in his life he meets Walt Disney, The Beatles, countless different women, and travels the world. Join him on his fantastic journey. This is a book that shouldn't be missed.
Imagine, if you were an orphaned baby, born in the last 1940s. You are loaned out to a collegiate level home economics class, where young and doting teenage would-be mothers take care of you; each has her turn at rotation. Then they finish the course and leave. What happens to you psychologically when you can't make a powerful attachment to anyone and when your life feels very random?
If you're Henry House -- the orphan supplied by the local home for the purpose of teaching college women how to be proper mothers -- you grow up with a strong attachment disorder, "with a promise of an intimacy he could feign with his body but clearly never feel with his heart." Like Mowgli in the classic children's film "The Jungle Book", all of the "characters" care for him. But everyone he trusts is replaced. And the sad part? While Henry House is fictional, the circumstances aren't; Lisa Grunwald bases her book on the Cornell University program that actually existed in the 1940s to 1960s.
The Irresistible Henry House is set in the years before Dr. Benjamin Spock, where coddling a baby or picking him up when he cried too much was perceived as teaching him bad habits. Henry becomes the unwilling son of the emotionally needy and stern proctor of the program, Martha, but her strong desire to connect is met with his indifference and disdain. He seeks the ideal: "a mother who had always been your mother; and a father wearing a cardigan sweater, whose eyes were always twinkling with magic and mirth." His REAL mother, who appears early on in the book, is a young, self-absorbed alcoholic, who is anything BUT the ideal.
As Henry grows into a handsome teenager and young man, he is adored by woman after woman. Like Forrest Gump, he seems to land at the most exciting places at the best times: he works for and meets Walt Disney at the heyday of animation, he works for the Yellow Submarine project and meets John Lennon, he is there for the drug-and-free-love scenes of the tumultuous 1960s. Woman after woman comes into his life; the only one he can even semi-trust is a mirror image of himself, a "fellow" practice baby. And then there's the childhood female friend who "gets" him in ways no one else can.
This book is a page-turning and straight-on look at attachment disorder; how those who don't connect with one consistent caregiver at an early age end up with strong emotional damage. I struggled between 4 and 5 stars because as Henry grows up, the women became, for me, interchangeable; the distancing he places between himself and the rest of the world often encompass the reader as well. Perhaps that is the point that Ms. Grunwald is trying to make. Despite that distancing -- and a few too many cliches from the treadworn 1960s -- this is a compelling story with an originally-drawn character. Happy reading!
on September 14, 2010
Many negative reviewers end up saying "I don't understand why Henry House was irresistible. I thought he was whiny/pathetic/manipulative/" etc. My view is they are missing the point. Henry was very resistible! Henry had some charming qualities, but his basic problem was he wanted to be loved and was denied love repeatedly. The kind of love Martha gave him was a straitjacket; Mary Jane was never available to him; other girlfriends were one-dimensional, lacking, and desired him superficially. The Falks were the family he desperately wanted - they dismissed him. His grandfather openly despised him. His mother abandoned him twice, after holding out her love like a carrot for years. "Gotcha!"
And now reviewers are rejecting him too! The story of Henry House is actually a tragedy. A very heartfelt and moving book. I suggest you read it.
In the epigraph to his 1910 novel, "Howards End," E.M. Forster wrote, "Only connect." It's a message that might well be heeded by the lost, miserable people who populate "The Irresistible Henry House," Lisa Grunwald's ultimately resistible new novel. The book tells the story of a young orphan raised in the (fictional) Wilton College Home Economics Practice House, where he is ostensibly a tool used by female students to learn the ins and outs of motherhood. Henry thus grows into a young man incapable of making lasting human connections, having been denied the opportunity to develop concrete bonding skills as a baby.
The psychology of this seems dubious to me. It's not, after all, as if Henry is treated like a football; he's pampered, played with, held, clothed, fed, even given birthday and Christmas presents. True, his many "mothers" don't stay longer than two years apiece, but Mrs. Gaines, the Practice House housemother is a constant (if stern) presence. Of course there are plot developments that contribute to Henry's unhappiness, but that Henry, meant to seem damaged and self-conscious (sympathetically so), grows into such a disturbed, predatory sociopath makes no sense to me. And he's so sullen and charmless that it's impossible to see why many of the book's female characters are desperate to share his company, let alone his bed.
Grunwald is a marvelous writer, one with a true gift for language. Each page contains gem after gem of beautifully expressed (if sometimes metaphor heavy) prose. This makes "Henry House" less of the hard slog it could have been; although by the time the titular character had entered his Forrest Gump stage (hobnobbing with Walt Disney and The Beatles), I found myself growing impatient and skipping ahead. Ultimately the book runs out of steam, and ends up being tiresome instead of heartbreaking and hopeful, which is what one imagines Grunwald was going for.
I also find it odd that Grunwald ends Henry's story when he's only 22. Are we really to believe that at such a young age he's finally reached a level of maturity to understand "where he's gone wrong," so to speak? Personally, I've never met a 22 year old with insight beyond what they wanted to do on a Saturday night. The story might have had more emotional weight if we'd seen how Henry's disassociated youth effected him into middle age.
Much has been made of this book's similarity in content to the works of John Irving. There are unwed mothers, boarding schools, disfiguring accidents - even a bear, if one includes Baloo from "The Jungle Book." But whereas Irving is a master at creating eccentric, flawed, yet likeable characters one can't get enough of, I was happy to leave "Henry House" and its inhabitants behind.
Lisa Grunwald's latest novel "The Irresistible Henry House" is a highly readable tome that is sure the be gobbled up and chewed over by countless book discussion groups across the country. Taking place in the waning days between pre-feminism and the start of feminism and the social and sexual liberation of the early-60s, as women's roles and behavior and behavioral theory, thanks to Dr. Spock, changed, "The Irresistible Henry House" glides along on the tides of history and its effects on the title character and the assorted women who shape his life - his birth mother, the women who raised him, the pseudo-sister who returns to his life, the female co-workers and the childhood friend who is the only woman he wants but cannot have (or can he?) as well as all of the assortment of women he can and does. All deep topics that will provoke spirited discussion.
However, the depth of the characters, especially Henry House himself, is negligible. However well described and delineated, the characters may occasionally have their own explanations for his behavior but as a general rule no one in this novel exhibits any sense of self-awareness. They may understand the consequences of their behavior but they do what they do without angst, all selfish to a fault. Is it any wonder that Henry House remains a cipher whose life is more a series of reactions than of any self-generated forward motion.
The sections on working for Walt Disney and working on the creation of the Beatles' movie "Yellow Submarine" will hold the attention of boomers such as myself but really are the author's marking time before the end of her story, an ending I found slight and thoroughly predictable - the smart woman who provides the anchor for a man adrift.
Eminently readable, "The Irresistible Henry House" is like a charlotte russe, delicious but unsubstantial.
on March 19, 2010
It's difficult to review this book without giving away what ultimately happens to Henry House, a 'practice baby' borrowed from an orphanage in order to train young college women how to be mothers; however, I will not include any spoilers in this review.
First, I did not find it easy to put this book down, because the author has created a character and a story that left me with a craving to know what happens next. As hard as it may be to believe, the use of practice babies was a very real phenomenon in the U.S. from the 1920's to the 1960's. As stated in the author's notes at the end of the book, at the time it was generally believed to be beneficial both to the mother trainees and the baby. However, it will probably not come as a surprise to modern readers that these experiments may not have been entirely successful.
The story follows the life of one such baby whom the program director ultimately cannot bear to send back to the orphanage. From the mid 1940's to the late 1960's, the author seamlessly transitions through the phases of Henry House's life, including references to many historical and iconic elements of each era.
This book is the author's answer to the question of what might have happened to these practice babies. To me, the book also explored the question "what is a mother"? Beautifully written, great characters, thoughtful analysis, and a plot that keeps you riveted. I can't think of anything this book is missing.
on February 14, 2011
I'm honestly amazed at the number of people who couldn't put this book down. The germ of an idea -- "practice babies" -- was unique, and the writer does write well. But I just didn't "connect" with any of the characters, including Heney. I did feel sorry for Henry, but he seemed to be clueless about how to make his personal relationships more satisfying, and didn't seem to even bother with trying. He does spend most of the book feeling sorry for himself, however. That, of course, was the story. But none of the many characcters in this book have any real life in them. And the plot is thin. The only reason I read it was because it was a book club read. Otherwise, I would have stopped reading it after several chapters.
The Irresistible Henry House is a beautifully written, expertly constructed, strangely compelling novel that had me glued to the page from start to finish. It was also incredibly sad. Much like passing a wreck on the side of the road that you can't look away from, my eyes were glued to the carnage. I couldn't look away from all the damage being done to poor Henry, the "practice baby". I couldn't look away from poor Martha who discovered that all she ever wanted was to be a real mother, and who then found out she only knew how to be a practice one. Then there was Betty who fell victim to a society that valued reputation over motherhood. She then fell victim to herself. Mary Jane had the temerity to fall in love with someone who could never make a choice, and finally grown up Henry, who discovered that he couldn't love anyone who loved him. There's enough heartbreak here to go around, and while it makes for tension and drama, it results in a story that is so resoundingly bleak, I would have a hard time recommending it to anyone.
The author's prose is often lyrical and flows well. This is a fast read. Her characters are so fully developed I could somehow fully empathize with all of them. I didn't like some of them, but I felt like I most always understood them. The author conjures up the time period well, measuring the changes in society as seen from the "practice house". From the beginning when girls arrive and are told that being a mother is the "only job they will ever have", to the mid sixties when the whole idea of majoring in home economics has become a joke, the author evokes the time period with clarity and a perceptiveness that adds a welcome historical dimension to the story.
This is a great book, but a somewhat cautious recommend.