Book Review: The Irresistible Henry House – Lisa Grunwald

Title: The Irresistible Henry House: A Novel
Author: Lisa Grunwald
ISBN: 9781400063000
Pages: 432
Release Date: March 16, 2010
Publisher: Random House
Genre: Literary Fiction
Source: Amazon Vine
Rating: 5 out of 5

Summary:

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.

Review:

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.

Comments

  1. I first read about this book in EW and they loved it. When I first started reading your review, I had to do a double-take to determine if this was actually a real story. It sounds like it could be!

  2. I first read about this book in EW and they loved it. When I first started reading your review, I had to do a double-take to determine if this was actually a real story. It sounds like it could be!

  3. Sounds wonderful!!! Is this true? Did people do this with babies? Looks interesting, and I will try to pick it up.

  4. Sounds wonderful!!! Is this true? Did people do this with babies? Looks interesting, and I will try to pick it up.

  5. I also have been wondering about this book, and have been since I first heard of it. It does sound really interesting, and like something that I would really enjoy! I am off to see if I can grab a copy. Thanks for the great review!

  6. I also have been wondering about this book, and have been since I first heard of it. It does sound really interesting, and like something that I would really enjoy! I am off to see if I can grab a copy. Thanks for the great review!

  7. Consider me intrigued! Love the premise and that cover, and I’ll definitely be adding this one to my wishlist.

  8. Consider me intrigued! Love the premise and that cover, and I’ll definitely be adding this one to my wishlist.

  9. I’ve never heard of a house baby, but have heard plenty about Dr. Spock. This sounds like an amazing book.

  10. I’ve never heard of a house baby, but have heard plenty about Dr. Spock. This sounds like an amazing book.

  11. I’m so glad you liked this one! I read/reviewed it early in June, and I’ve been disappointed to see it hasn’t gotten much attention – it’s one of my favorite novels this year.

  12. I’m so glad you liked this one! I read/reviewed it early in June, and I’ve been disappointed to see it hasn’t gotten much attention – it’s one of my favorite novels this year.

  13. This seems like a good and…quirky read. It’s going on my list. Great review.

  14. This seems like a good and…quirky read. It’s going on my list. Great review.

  15. I think the premise of this book is absolutely fascinating so I am thrilled to hear that in actuality it is entertaining too!

  16. I think the premise of this book is absolutely fascinating so I am thrilled to hear that in actuality it is entertaining too!

  17. This one is near the top of my list after I finish the Booker longlist. I’m glad to see it lives up to the hype!

  18. This one is near the top of my list after I finish the Booker longlist. I’m glad to see it lives up to the hype!

  19. What an intriguing premise! I will have to get my hands on this book, it sounds fascinating!

  20. What an intriguing premise! I will have to get my hands on this book, it sounds fascinating!

  21. I loved this book as well!

    http://fairlybookish.wordpress.com/

  22. I loved this book as well!

    http://fairlybookish.wordpress.com/

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