Orphan Henry is only four months old when he arrives on a college campus and into the arms of Martha Gaines, house matron of the school’s home economics program. As the school’s newest “practice baby,” Henry is brought to the university to be raised by a group of young female students training in the domestic arts. For one week at a time, a student will live in the practice house and be Henry’s “mother,” tending to his every need. And after a few years, Henry will have been reared using the finest childcare methods and ready to be adopted by a “real” family.
But like everything in Henry’s young life, that fate isn’t in the cards.
Through trials and missteps, guilt and punishment, fear and the tiny tentacles of love, Henry becomes the first child in the practice house to stay on past his second or third birthday. Under the watchful and fierce eye of Martha, a childless widow who can’t let him go, Henry grows up having little sense of belonging and a tenuous grasp of love. And over the next few decades of life, he struggles to move past his feelings of belonging to everyone — and belonging to no one. Not even himself.
Lisa Grunwald’s The Irresistible Henry House is a fascinating premise that had me scrambling to pick it up, but I couldn’t eventually shake my feelings of exhuastion. I knew this was going to be a long, long journey with Henry — and though I was happy to have made it, I can’t say it always felt worth it.
Henry is, as expected, a very complicated, dissolute character. Charming and seductive. Practiced but ill at ease. Troubled but brilliant. And though I fell for him as a man, I found myself increasingly frustrated by his behavior. I understood it, sure. But it didn’t always make him someone for whom I rooted. More often than not, I wanted to give him a quick slap to his emotionally-unavailable face.
But what Grunwald has created is a complex, interesting and long novel that propelled me forward with each page. Though I was disappointed to learn the truth of Henry’s origins so early on, that didn’t keep me from continuing with his story. Grunwald’s peripheral characters — like Dr. Gardner, Martha, Betty — were well-drawn and interesting people, though I often felt like Martha was a wee bit deranged. It was hard to feel sympathetic toward her when she seemed to rely so completely on the acceptance and love of a child — and he didn’t deserve the burden of her undivided attention. It made me very angry with her, but any book that inspires a reaction from me — even loathing — is often a good one.
My trouble with the novel was, more than anything, its size. I mean, this book is huge. When I say we go on a journey with Henry, I mean we go on a journey. We meet him almost at conception, really, and then follow him through his complicated childhood, teen years, raucous adventures as a young man and, finally, during his own fumblings toward domesticity. Even at his weakest, we see a glimmer of the charisma that draws women to him like crazy. Henry — handsome; dashing; unavailable — is like a beacon in the night.
Grunwald’s world of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s is clearly researched. As Henry grows up and begins to nurse his artistic abilities, his travels out west and to a certain famous studio were some of the most interesting parts of the narrative. I really loved his relationship with Mary Jane, too; I’m a sucker for the best-friends-maybe-lovers storyline. And the fact that they met as kids was really charming.
Readers of historical fiction and family dynamics might take to Henry and his unconventional upbringing, and I appreciated the cameos by famous folks like Dr. Spock and Walt Disney. Catapulting the story to London was another pleasant surprise, and I give bonus points for the heartwarming ending. Though I felt it took far too long to get there, I had that warm glowing feeling as soon as I closed this one. Grunwald — and Henry — did win me over.
3.75 out of 5!