Tuesday, June 8, 2010


The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald (NY: Random House, 2010).

Henry House starts his life in 1946 as a "practice" baby in a college home economics course designed to give students real life experience in babycare. As Grunwald explains in an afterword, this was a real part of college curricula, including Cornell University, until as late as 1969. In Grunwald's version, the students take turns living for a week in the "practice" house, where the orderly, rule-driven Martha Gaines presides. Henry is the tenth baby she's brought to the house, and he's a bit younger than most of the previous babies. And then there are his eyes, that draw her in, and his engaging smile. Martha falls in love. Henry proves irresistible to most of the women in his life and learns early to manipulate his power.

Further complicating the situation, Betty, one of the students in the class, the college president's daughter, in fact, turns out to be Henry's biological mother. She had him extramaritally, while her husband was on military duty, so initially she gave Henry up. Taking care of him in the house starts to change her mind, but when her husband, who everyone thought had died, turns up AWOL in Australia, she abandons the idea of keeping Henry altogether. Strict, orderly Martha gives in to her desires and adopts Henry, so he grows up surrounded by an endlessly changing cast of women and babies, yet unable to feel attached to anyone in particular as they leave after a year. Martha tells Henry that his mother is dead, and when Betty turns up divorced and wanting a relationship with Henry, Henry feels betrayed by Martha, who lied out of her own need to possess Henry. His relationship with Martha, already strained by her excessive neediness, is hopelessly mangled. He stops talking to her, and then stops talking altogether.

The story follows Henry's relationships with women first in a school for troubled youth, then when he runs away to New York to live with his mother, then on to California and a job at the Disney studios, then to London to work on the animation for Yellow Submarine. As the world changes--from the fifties to the sixties--the iconic Henry changes, too. Grunwald weaves a colorful, engrossing tale of self-discovery as Henry struggles with conflicting desires and his own creativity. This is a must-read novel for 2010!

No comments: