Monday, January 10, 2011

The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald

  • Monday, February 7, 2011         1 p.m.
  • Discussion leader: Candace Plotsker-Herman

In the mid-twentieth century in a home economics program at a prominent university, real babies are being used to teach mothering skills to young women. For a young man raised in these unlikely circumstances, finding real love and learning to trust will prove to be the work of a lifetime. From his earliest days as a "practice baby" through his adult adventures in 1960s New York City, Disney's Burbank studios, and the delirious world of the Beatles' London, Henry House remains handsome, charming, universally adored--and never entirely accessible to the many women he conquers but can never entirely trust.

Reserve your copy of The Irresistible Henry House on ALIScat

Download the Readers' Packet, prepared by the Hewlett-Woodmere Public Library staff

Reviews from the NovelistPlus database:

In 1946 Martha Gaines ran the practice house—a home-economics program for teaching young women how to be mothers—at Wilton College. Many babies passed through the house, but only Henry captured Martha’s heart, and she decided to keep Henry to raise as her own. At the tender age of 10, Henry finds out who his real mother is, and his life takes a turn from which he can’t recover. Hating Martha for lying to him, Henry begins planning his escape from the practice house and ultimately from Martha. What follows is a fascinating chronicle of his wandering life—from a boarding school for troubled teens to a cramped apartment with his birth mother in New York, the artists’ bull pen at Disney studios, the streets of London, and finally back home to Wilton College, where he can make peace with what Martha did to him so many years ago. Grunwald has created a wonderfully well-written story about a charming, lovable man who must learn to trust and love the women in his life. -- Kubisz, Carolyn (Reviewed 02-01-2010) (Booklist, vol 106, number 11, p26) 
Publishers Weekly:
/* Starred Review */ Like T.S. Garp, Forrest Gump or Benjamin Button, Henry House, the hero of Grunwald’s imaginative take on a little known aspect of American academic life, has an unusual upbringing. In 1946, orphaned baby Henry is brought to all-girl’s Wilton College as part of its home economics program to give young women hands-on instruction in child-rearing (such programs really existed). Henry ends up staying on at the practice house and growing up under the care of its outwardly stern but inwardly loving program director, Martha Gaines. As a protest against his unusual situation, Henry refuses to speak and is packed off to a special school in Connecticut, where his talents as an artist and future lover of women bloom. After he drops out of school, Henry finds work as an animator, working on Mary Poppins , then on the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine . With cameos by Dr. Benjamin Spock, Walt Disney and John Lennon, and locations ranging from a peaceful college campus to swinging 1960s London, Grunwald nails the era just as she ingeniously uses Henry and the women in his life to illuminate the heady rush of sexual freedom (and confusion) that signified mid-century life. (Mar.) --Staff (Reviewed October 5, 2009) (Publishers Weekly, vol 256, issue 40, p3) 
Library Journal:
For several decades beginning in the 1920s, some college home economic departments had practice houses, complete with practice babies for students to learn scientific principles of child and home care. The babies were orphans who spent a year tended by students before being adopted. Grunwald explores what life might have been like for one such baby. Henry House, the tenth Wilton College practice baby, earns his title of irresistible by learning early how to please eight different mothers. He's a master at keeping women engaged while never showing a preference. He learns how to imitate but not to create, a skill that helps him become a competent cartoon illustrator but not a true cartoonist. Not until he comes close to losing the one friend who knows him best does he begin to break the patterns learned as a baby. VERDICT This welcome variation of coming-of-age tales shares with Grunwald's previous novels (Whatever Makes You Happy; Summer ) a compelling web of characters and emotions that will please will please the author's fans and readers interested in novels with emotional depth. [Library marketing; ebook available 3/10: ISBN .]—Jan Blodgett, Davidson Coll. Lib., NC --Jan Blodgett (Reviewed November 15, 2009) (Library Journal, vol 134, issue 19, p60) 
/* Starred Review */ A "practice baby" grows up to be the most indifferent guy, in this multilayered new novel from Grunwald (Whatever Makes You Happy, 2005, etc.).As the baby boom begins in 1946, fictional Wilton College in Pennsylvania works hard to prepare young women for that all important MRS. degree. It even provides a home economics "practice house," where coeds can hone their mother craft by caring for an infant on loan from the local orphanage. Each foundling is surnamed House by decree of Wilton's middle-aged, widowed and childless doyenne of domestic science, Martha Gaines. Three-month-old Henry, the current rental baby, is diapered, bathed and bottle-fed by alternating shifts of college students under Martha's hypercritical supervision. Though she's firmly wedded to the parenting wisdom of that era (e.g., babies must be trained, not indulged), Martha finds long-dormant maternal yearnings awakened by winsome Henry. Through guile and well-placed blackmail she adopts him, and he remains at Wilton under the care of successive practice mothers. Manipulating multiple moms teaches Henry to view women as interchangeable pushovers. Female demands—especially Martha's—repel him. A talented artist, Henry finds a haven with his beatnik art teachers in boarding school, until the birth of their child displaces him. His birth mother Betty, now a Manhattan career girl, offers temporary asylum from Martha, then unceremoniously abandons him. He finds work in Hollywood as a Disney animator, painting penguins for Mary Poppins (another story about a mother substitute). Then he moves on to London at the height of the Swinging Sixties to help animate the Beatles' Yellow Submarine. Henry is both irresistible and impervious to women other than his childhood friend Mary Jane, adept at the approach-avoidance game that is his Achilles' heel. Then, one day Henry meets his narcissistic match in another former practice baby. The near-omniscient narration perfectly suits this story, which often reads like a rueful but wry case study of nurture as nightmare. (Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 2010)

Further Reading: