Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald

The Irresistible Henry House
by Lisa Grunwald
Random House, 2010
407 pages

motivation for reading: book club selection
source: borrowed from the library

In a nutshell:
The Irresistible Henry House, set in the mid-twentieth century, focuses on the life of a 'practice baby' raised in a university home economics program.

My thoughts:
The opening sentence grabbed me right away:
"By the time Henry House was four months old, a copy of his picture was being carried in the pocketbooks of seven different women, each of whom called him her son."
Who knew there was such a thing as a 'practice' baby? A photograph of one such baby, supplied by a local orphanage to Cornell University's Home Economics Department 'practice house', inspired this novel. At Cornell, students learned various homemaking skills, including mothering. Babies were 'started' at the practice house and returned to the orphanage around the age of two ready for adoption.

Adopting a baby prepped at the university was considered eminently desirable. Cornell's program began in 1919 and continued until 1969. Other programs of this type existed at colleges and universities all over the country.

When Henry's practice baby days come to an end, Martha, the department chair, decides to raise him as her own son instead of sending him back to the orphanage. Henry moves upstairs with Martha, while a steady rotation of 'practice mothers' and 'practice siblings' continues downstairs. By the time Henry is in nursery school, he is aware that his life is unusual.
"As he knelt in the small space behind the couch in the nursery school, turning the page of We Come and Go, he allowed himself to imagine that he belonged in a place like Dick and Jane's, where when people left they came back, and they pretty much stayed the same." (page 80)
Eventually, Henry comes to resent Martha and their troubled relationship will continue into adulthood.
"Whether practice mothers or practice babies, everyone Henry loved eventually left and Martha - in a way that would take Henry years to see - seemed to gain strength from these departures and the role they gave her in his life." (page 103 - 104)
Henry leaves the practice house and enrolls in a boarding school for troubled children. Later he lands a job as an animator for Walt Disney, and eventually heads to London to work on the Yellow Submarine movie. Throughout this time, Henry continues to have difficult personal relationships.
"He wanted to have no one. If he had no one, he figured, he would have no one to lose." (page 319)
"Henry was looking at Peace and finally seeing the unaffected indifference, the strident autonomy, the inability to trust in one person; seeing, unavoidably, the absolute worst in himself." (page 385)
I really enjoyed the historical details in this book. The Disney section had all sorts of interesting anecdotes on the making of Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book. Martha was given the opportunity to meet and converse with Dr. Spock at a conference. The 60's scene in London seemed very well done.

My Rating:

Book club reaction:
There were just six of us at the meeting, and only four finished the book. I seemed to be a little more enthusiastic than the others, maybe because this was such a nice change of pace from the classics I have been reading lately. I really thought there would be more of a discussion than we were able to muster... we seemed to have a hard time staying on topic.

Bottom Line:
The Irresistible Henry House is a well-written novel with a fascinating premise that hasn't gotten as much attention as it probably deserves.


  1. This sounds hugely compelling - I'm surprised it didn't muster much discussion. Not in my library here tho :(

  2. Glad to hear you liked this one! It is in the middle of my ever-growing tower of library books TBR.

  3. This sounds very intriguing and I've been hearing only good things about the book. I'm not sure if it has made its way to India but I'll look out for sure :)

  4. Too bad about the book club--it sure sounds like something that should have provoked some serious discussion. Sounds really good.

  5. JoAnn...I LOVE what you've written, and I'm off to see if our library has the audio...Thanks for he great review.

  6. Verity - Hopefully, the book will make it to the UK. It was released earlier this year and isn't even out in paperback yet.

    Melissa - I saw your pile of library books... wow! :-)

    Kals - It's the most interesting premise I've seen in some time... hope it is available in India!

    Amy - The book club meeting really surprised me. I guess there was too much personal stuff going on that week, plus not all of us had read the book.

    Diane - Hope you can find this one. I'll bet it would be great as an audio.

  7. We read it for our book club choice in August. I liked it too. It made for great discussion also.

  8. Entertainment Weekly really liked this book, and I've seen some good reviews on it around the blogs. Something is holding me back from reading it and I'm not sure what.

  9. The subject matter sounds like it would make for a great discussion. I'm a bit horrified at those practices with children. Sorry the discussion wasn't what you were hoping for.

  10. Debbie - I think this is a perfect choice for book clubs... just sorry it was an 'off' day for my group. Glad to hear you enjoyed it, too.

    Sandy - That happens to me, too. Sometimes it's hard to put your finger on what it is, but it's usually better to go with your gut feeling.

    Margot - The most surprising thing about this book was that 'practice babies' really existed. I was amazed!

  11. I'm so very intrigued by the whole concept behind this book...sounds very thought provoking!

  12. Oh my goodness, I've never heard of practice babies! That's wild! What an intriguing concept for a novel. I've not heard of this one, but it certainly sounds interesting.

  13. Staci - It's amazing how much child-rearing practices have changed over the year... very different in the 40's when Henry was a baby!

    Erin - That fact that there really were 'practice babies' made this novel even more enjoyable - what a great premise!

  14. I've seen some great reviews on this one -- I need to pick this one up. The opening line alone is worth it!

  15. Coffee and a Book Chick - Isn't that opening sentence great? How can a book not be good after an opening like that - lol!

  16. That opening sentence is a grabber. I think I would love this book and I can only imagine the great discussion it could generate.

    Too bad the other club members weren't as enthusiastic as you were.

  17. Beth F - This is a perfect book for discussion! I'm really surprised ours was such a flop... guess we weren't in a book-discussing mood that day :-(


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