Title: The Irresistible Henry House: A Novel
Author: Lisa Grunwald
Release Date: March 16, 2010
Publisher: Random House
Genre: Literary Fiction
Source: Amazon Vine
Rating: 5 out of 5
In the late ‘40s, a baby was brought to the practice house at Wilton College in order to teach young women how to care for a child. This was nothing new – in fact, it was happening all over the country. The girls would practice with him or her for a couple of years, and then the toddler would be sent off to an adoptive family. But this baby was different. Martha Gaines, the house mother and Home Economics teacher, fell in love with young Henry and couldn’t bear to be parted from him. She adopted Henry House, and this novel recounts the repercussions of a boy having not one but tens of mothers and, thus, not knowing where he truly belongs.
I found the premise of The Irresistible Henry House simply fascinating. The idea of a house baby being raised for a few years by a collective group of mothers learning to care for him or her – it’s so foreign, and yet it was a common practice back in the 40s and 50s. Grunwald depicts this very well – the atmosphere is believable and the program is clearly well-researched.
Every character in The Irresistible Henry House is just waiting to be dissected. There’s Martha Gaines, the director of the Home Economics program and eventual “mother” to Henry House. Martha firmly believes that children should be kept wanting. They need to be trained – if they start crying at 12:45 PM, but naptime doesn’t end til 1 PM, then they should be left alone until naptime is officially over. A child also should not be touched too often. It’s interesting to see how Martha’s ideas about mothering affect Henry, as well as how Dr. Benjamin Spock’s method of child-rearing challenges her views.
Psychiatrists and psychologists could write a book about Henry House and still have unanswered questions and puzzles. As Henry grows up, he becomes increasingly complicated while at the same time incredibly simple to figure out. The consequences of having multiple mothers, and therefore never connecting with one woman as his caregiver, are clear: Henry cannot commit. And it’s not in the “he’ll never propose to his girlfriend” kind of way, but in a warped way that means Henry is completely unable to choose anything or anyone over something or someone else. This leads to Henry seeming heartless and cruel, but really he is just indifferent. Despite that, the reader can’t help but sympathize with him. He’s not depicted in the best light, yet Grunwald makes us love him anyways.
Henry is also an incredibly gifted mimic. He has the ability to reproduce what he sees on paper and is a very talented artist. However, he has absolutely no creativity. While he can draw anything he sees, he cannot produce something of his own volition. It’s as if a part of his soul, the part that loves and commits to one person, to one job, to one city, is missing. Because of that, he has nothing to speak to him, to tell him where his creativity lies. Perhaps it’s that act of choosing that ignites our passions, that inspires us to create something out of nothing.
The career path that Henry stumbles into, that of an animator, is also very interesting. Grunwald delivers detailed descriptions about Henry’s life working on the Disney movie Mary Poppins. I never knew how exactly hand drawn animation worked, so these insights were captivating. It also made sense for Henry, a gifted copier, to pursue a career in which he reproduced drawings of already created figures. It reinforced his inability to be original in his artwork.
The Irresistible Henry House was an absorbing read. Though I read it in pieces, I believe I could have read it cover to cover in one sitting because it was so intriguing and well written. Grunwald’s prose is clear and precise, and she develops many complex characters with the ease of a seasoned professional. It’s a book that I’ll be recommending to anyone and everyone for a long time to come.