Saturday, April 10, 2010

Book Review: "The Irresistible Henry House" by Lisa Grunwald

In the heyday of college home economics programs (in the 1940s through early 1960s), some schools featured "practice houses," in which students could learn all the basics of how to be a good housewife—cooking, sewing and cleaning, to name just a few. Some practice houses also had "practice babies," babies obtained from local orphanages that were used as teaching tools to help women understand how to care for infants and young children. These babies usually lived at the school for the first two years of life before being put up for adoption at the orphanage.

Lisa Grunwald's fantastic book, The Irresistible Henry House, tells the story of such a program, through the eyes of Henry, one of the practice babies, and Martha Gaines, director of the program. Henry, as he is passed from one practice "mother" to another, learns early on how to charm women and make each one feel important and loved. Except his adoptive mother, Martha, whose need to love Henry and need for his love in return causes her to lie to him, a lie that has ramifications through the rest of their lives.

I thought this was a terrific story. Grunwald's characters are tremendously vivid—Henry is a cipher because he wasn't able to make any permanent human connections at an early age, and instead spends a good portion of his life trying to please everyone but himself, only to find his affections not returned when he first truly falls for someone. I found Martha's plight somewhat heartbreaking, but you can definitely see how smothering her love is to Henry. And Henry's journey as an artist and animator is as fascinating as the rest of the story. A really great book that will make an interesting movie.

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