Title: The Irresistible Henry House
Author: Lisa Grunwald
Release date: March 16, 2010 (hardcover); August 16, 2011 (paperback)
Publisher: Random House
Format: ARC (of paperback edition)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
A cross between: “Mad Men” and “What Women Want”
Theme song: “Nowhere Man” by The Beatles
Controversial role model: Walt Disney
For something similar but different, try: Next to Love by Ellen Feldman
Henry House is the practice baby everyone falls in love with.
There have been and will be other babies, orphans who stay in the Wilton College Home Economics course for two years each to teach young women how to care for children. The practice house is “a testament to the belief that women could replace the mysteries of child rearing with mastery.”
But to all who meet him, Henry House seems different—even to Martha Gaines, the strict director of the home ec program and the resident and caretaker of the practice house where the babies have come and gone for years. So Martha makes an unprecedented move; she adopts Henry and raises him in the practice house.
As Henry grows up surrounded by young, affectionate women in a model home, he strives to make an impression on all of the people who enter and leave his life with the cyclical regularity of a college campus. Early on, he acquires a “primal skill in discerning women’s longings and fitting himself, puzzle-piece-like, into the rounded clutch of those needs.”
While he charms and entertains, however, Henry finds deeper feelings more difficult. He never becomes attached to one woman over any of the others, not even Martha. Throughout his childhood and into adulthood, Henry thoughtlessly plays with the emotions of the girls and women so clearly taken with him.
Henry finds some success as an artist, first in Disney’s California and then in The Beatles’ London. However, he is held back by his utter lack of creativity. He is a copier, an imitator—never a creator. Creation itself would be a choice, and “choosing things, he knew, had been the challenge of his life. Choosing a woman, choosing a[n artistic] style. They weren’t really that different.”
Despite his complex feelings for Betty, his natural mother; Mary Jane, his lifelong friend; Martha, his adoptive mother; and Peace, another practice baby whom Henry believes he loves, Henry in fact seems incapable of caring for anyone but himself.
The home ec program seems to rob him—and other practice babies, like Peace—of their humanity, their very ability to love. He seems spoiled and robotic; less than human; a user of people and never a giver.
Henry carries his bitterness and rage at Martha for covering up his true history for far too long. He blames her not only for “the pretense of his past but also the pretense of a normal life.” He complains incessantly of Martha’s needs, but he is incredibly needy as well. At one point, he wonders with pointed cynicism: “What had Martha’s treatment of him ever been but a bargain to ease the burden of her needs?”
Despite Henry’s negativity toward her, Martha seems no more or less needy than any mother, any person. He resents her simply because she makes demands on Henry’s affection; she asks that he feel for her, but he cannot or will not. He never forgives Martha, even though he does apologize for his treatment of her on her deathbed. When he views Martha’s lifeless body, his appalling selfishness takes over once again:
“What was rising inside him, even as he looked on, was not grief or regret or even self-pity, but rather a raucous, wildly improper sense of freedom, unlike any he’d known.”
In short, for much of the book Henry is not a very sympathetic character. That’s tough to write, and I applaud Grunwald for the warmth she was able to impart. Yet I would have liked Henry’s selfishness to be counterbalanced by another strong character. Mary Jane is the closest to Henry’s opposite, but her presence in the book is limited by her long absences from his story—when Henry arrives in this house and leaves for school, for California, for London.
Martha is a very interesting character in the beginning, someone who it seems will reveal in times layers of despair and hurt long hidden by domestic perfectionism: “The real courage, Martha was starting to believe, was going on when no one cared if you went on or not.”
Catching glimpses into the expectations put upon young post-war women was fascinating. When Martha first gathers a class of ladies around Henry, she solemnly informs them that “’taking care of a baby . . . is the most important job that most of you will ever have.’” As attitudes toward women’s role shift dramatically in the sixties, Martha’s job is questioned more and more. More importantly, her very beliefs in the reassuring comforts of a clean home, a well-made meal, and an orderly household are challenged as feminism takes hold.
However, as Henry’s narrative picks up, hers trails off, and by the end she is robbed of all strength. Once she is seen only through Henry’s eyes, she becomes vindictive and possessive, losing her potential for dimensionality. She simply loses interest in the tenets she once advocated so firmly and resigns herself to being a relic of an age that is now demeaned by modern men and women alike.
The book was a little longer than it may have needed to be—many of the anecdotes about his unusual life might have been shortened or combined—but is well-written and well-researched, replete with authentic details and a contained sense of history. Henry’s transformation, though long in coming and questionable in its authenticity, raises interesting questions of whether a person can change.
August 8: Unabridged Chick
August 11: The Broke and the Bookish
August 15: Nomad Reader
August 16: Luxury Reading
August 17: Jenn’s Bookshelves
August 19: The Literate Housewife Review
August 22: A Bookshelf Monstrosity
August 24: BookNAround
August 25: Life in Review
August 29: Book Club Classics
August 30: Knowing the Difference
August 31: Write Meg!