Every now and then I encounter a book that makes me long for discussion. The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald is one of those books. I am always intrigued by social and cultural history and the science of attatchment and relationships, which are some of the themes of this novel.
Henry House begins his life in 1946 as a "practice baby" in the "practice house," the central element in fictional Wilton College's home economics program. A group of students, young women of course, actually take turns mothering him under the strict watch of home economics expert Martha Gaines, who subscribes to the pre-Spock philosophy that babies need to be trained, not cuddled and loved. Nevertheless, Martha's empty life is inexplicably brightened by the charming Henry and soap-opera worthy circumstances help her convince the college president to allow her to adopt him instead of returning him to the orphanage at age 2 to be adopted by a young couple.
The constant doting of so many young women and the smothering love of Martha shape Henry into a boy and young man who knows his power over women and uses it to his advantage. Due to the unusual circumstances of his adoption, Martha doesn't tell him the whole truth. When Henry's biological mother shows up and spills the beans to the once-happy 9 year old, he quickly spirals into a place of isolation, mistrust, and self-unawareness. Henry trusts neither the adults in his life nor the girls so desparate to be his partner in crime. He grows into a "disturbed" teenager and eventually runs away from his boarding school to become an animator for Disney in California and later for the Beatles Yellow Submarine movie in London. His playboy life comes full circle when he meets and falls in love with another grown "practice baby" during the turbulent 1960s. This relationship, however, is not what it seems. I know it seems that I may have given away a lot of spoilers in the past two paragraphs, but trust me, this novel is so rich with characters and detail, the bare bones I revealed here are nothing compared to what you'll find between the covers.
Verdict: I think the author's assertion that lack of loving attachment in baby and childhood leads to a maladjusted adult incapable of forming loving attachments may be a bit too extreme and elementary, but I was still entralled by the way these tragic characters' lives played out. Anyone who is interested in family and romantic relationships, the social history of the mid-20th century, or bildungsroman will enjoy this book. The theme and tone also reminded me of John Irving at his best. Henry is somewhat of an anti-Garp (of The World According to Garp). Now that I think about it, I think these two novels would spurn a fascinating compare/contrast analysis! Something to think about...