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The Irresistible Henry House: A Novel Hardcover – Abridged, March 16, 2010

3.9 out of 5 stars 147 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, March 2010: To the ranks of iconic mid-century modern men Gump and Garp, add The Irresistible Henry House. As imagined by Lisa Grunwald, inspired by the peculiar beginnings of a real baby, Henry's life unspools with more realism and intention than Gump's, with less a sense of dread than Garp's. But Henry and his story have the same almost-magic magnetism. Henry arrives in the world as a "practice baby," passed between a dozen young women at the Practice House of Wilton College's Home Economics program in a decidedly pre-Spock era that discouraged mothers from holding babies "too much." From the beginning, Henry inspires in women the desire for his exclusive attention--but none want them more than Martha Gaines, the program director, who has spent her career overseeing the proper raising of a string of "house" orphans who were eventually adopted out.

Unable to let Henry go, Martha raises him as her own. Burdened by her need and bewildered by his own inability to reciprocate affection, Henry retreats into a silence that buys him banishment to a school for troubled teens in Connecticut, far from Martha's grasp. In these mute years, Henry hones his aptitude for drawing and experiences the benefits of knowing instinctively how to please women (sometimes including Mary Jane, his real childhood sweetheart). His skills open doors for him at Disney Studios to draw Poppins penguins, and in London for Yellow Submarine. The multidimensional generations of women in his life make a fascinating microcosm of the cultural revolution that redefined the expectations of all American women in the latter half of the 20th century. But it's Henry's struggle to define the desires of his own heart that propels this story, culminating in a scene as transcendent as Carver's Cathedral. --Mari Malcolm

Amazon Exclusive: Lisa Grunwald on The Irresistible Henry House

This novel begins with a photograph, and my writing it began the same way. I was trolling the Web five years ago, looking for entries to add to Women's Letters, an anthology I was editing then. Somewhat by accident, I landed on a Website created by history students at Cornell University, and I saw for the first time a thumbnail photograph, just an icon, of an irresistible baby’s face. I clicked on it, not knowing exactly why, and met an orphan who had spent the first year of his life being cared for as a "practice baby" in a home economics course. A real baby. Handed off in turns from practice mother to practice mother.

Initially, the journalist in me wanted to know what had happened to that baby. The novelist in me asked the same question. There was a brief skirmish. But when I read that the babies raised this way were returned to their orphanages and adopted like any of the other infants, the novelist in me won out. Without access to more information, I had a feeling that fiction would be if not stranger than at least longer than truth.

Still, the time frame in which the novel would be set plunged me into my first attempt at writing historical fiction, and other facts ended up being important to Henry House’s story. A few examples of fun facts I found along the way:

  • Far from offering just the "MRS degree" that became part of its reputation, home economics--in teaching women about cleaning, cooking, and household equipment--provided an almost revolutionary path to subjects traditionally thought of as men’s province: chemistry, biology, electrical engineering.
  • One of the most popular childcare experts in the 30s and 40s recommended a firm handshake as the best way to greet one’s young children.
  • In the early 20th century, children with what we now know as learning disabilities were still being sent to institutions with names like the Custodial Asylum for Unteachable Idiots.
  • It was Walt Disney’s own idea to replace the tuxedoed waiters in the book of Mary Poppins with the animated penguins who dance in the movie; as a child he had always thought tuxedoed men looked like penguins.
  • It wasn’t really the Beatles who did the speaking parts for Yellow Submarine.

All of these facts landed in my private file of "who knew?" and subsequently landed in the novel as well. But the central fact remained that the baby in the picture had started his life being cared for by multiple women, and I knew that no matter what else happened in the book, that weird fact would shape the heart of my character and, I will hope, the heart of the book. --Lisa Grunwald

(Photo © Jon LaPook)

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Like T.S. Garp, Forrest Gump or Benjamin Button, Henry House, the hero of Grunwald's imaginative take on a little known aspect of American academic life, has an unusual upbringing. In 1946, orphaned baby Henry is brought to all-girl's Wilton College as part of its home economics program to give young women hands-on instruction in child-rearing (such programs really existed). Henry ends up staying on at the practice house and growing up under the care of its outwardly stern but inwardly loving program director, Martha Gaines. As a protest against his unusual situation, Henry refuses to speak and is packed off to a special school in Connecticut, where his talents as an artist and future lover of women bloom. After he drops out of school, Henry finds work as an animator, working on Mary Poppins, then on the Beatles' Yellow Submarine. With cameos by Dr. Benjamin Spock, Walt Disney and John Lennon, and locations ranging from a peaceful college campus to swinging 1960s London, Grunwald nails the era just as she ingeniously uses Henry and the women in his life to illuminate the heady rush of sexual freedom (and confusion) that signified mid-century life. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1 edition (March 16, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400063000
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400063000
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.4 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (147 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #935,002 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By "switterbug" Betsey Van Horn TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on February 11, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )

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.
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