The Irresistible Henry House: A Novel
by Lisa Grunwald
I must confess that my interest in Lisa Grunwald's latest novel, The Irresistible Henry House was captured by comparisons to the work of John Irving. That's a reliable way to catch my attention, but it almost always leads to disappointment. Not so here. The book does have a distinctly Irvingesque quality, though it's difficult to put my finger on what exactly makes it so.
Spanning from 1946 to the late sixties, the novel presents a portrait in intimate detail of Henry Gaines from infancy though early adulthood. The one-time Henry "House" was a practice baby. For several decades in the mid-twentieth century, it was common for university home economics departments to run practice households in which to teach their students how to run a home. Many of these came complete with practice babies, borrowed from orphanages when they were just a few months old, and handed off from "mother" to "mother" as the students learned childcare.
Of course, this is unimaginable today--to the point that I thought the premise was the author's invention, until I researched further. The inability to form close attachments is just the tip of the iceberg of the issues this kid's got, which makes him an intriguing literary character. Unlike most practice babies, Henry never returned to the orphanage after a couple of years of being handed off like a baton in a relay race. He'd captured the heart of Martha Gaines, the needy Program Director. Henry was raised in the practice house with the cloying Martha and a never-ending procession of "mothers" and babies. We observe Henry through many stages of development and phases in his life, and not only are we treated to a really fascinating character study, but we also get a perceptive study of a changing post-war America. Along the way there are cameo appearances by a surprising number of famous figures of the times.
As enjoyable a read as this was, it had two significant flaws in my view. Starting with the novel's title, and again and again throughout the text, we're told how charming, charismatic, and yes, downright irresistible Henry is, but for me it never translated to the page. I've read plenty of characters who charmed my socks right off. Not only didn't Henry Gaines even come close, he really wasn't all that likeable. He was a character that I felt sympathy for, but he was a frankly manipulative cold fish. Grunwald really failed to bring the character's purported attractiveness to life.
The other problem is that most of the other significant characters were, if anything, less likeable than Henry. Martha vacillates between an intense neediness and something close to evil. The less said about Henry's birth family the better. The women who parade through Henry's life are largely an unappealing lot. The most sympathetic is Mary Jane, the proverbial girl-next-door, a constant through Henry's tumultuous life. I suspect that there are readers who will have difficulty connecting emotionally with these characters.
Despite the criticisms above, I really enjoyed this novel, and would recommend it to readers intrigued by the premise and the era, and who are willing to spend time with flawed characters seeking redemption.