Irresistible Henry House (Grunwald)

The Irresistible Henry House
Lisa Grunwald, 2010
Random House
432 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781400063000


Summary 
It is the middle of the twentieth century, and 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. In this captivating novel, bestselling author Lisa Grunwald gives us the sweeping tale of an irresistible hero and the many women who love him.

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 remains handsome, charming, universally adored—and never entirely accessible to the many women he conquers but can never entirely trust.

Filled with unforgettable characters, settings, and action, The Irresistible Henry House portrays the cultural tumult of the mid-twentieth century even as it explores the inner tumult of a young man trying to transcend a damaged childhood. For it is not until Henry House comes face-to-face with the real truths of his past that he finds a chance for real love. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio 
Birth—1959
Where—N/A
Education—N/A
Currently—lives in New York City


Lisa Grunwald is the author of the novels Whatever Makes You Happy, New Year’s Eve, The Theory of Everything, and Summer. Along with her husband, journalist Stephen J. Adler, she edited the bestselling anthologies Women’s Letters and Letters of the Century. Grunwald is a former contributing editor to Life and a former features editor of Esquire. She and Adler live in New York City with their two children. (From the publisher.)



Book Reviews 
Epic and thoroughly engrossing.... House sweeps along with such page-turning vitality that [Henry's] story is indeed irresistible. Grade: A
Leah Greenblat - Entertainment Weekly


A smart, enjoyable read that will leave you with a pleasing thought: Even for guys who just aren't that into anyone, there's hope.
Kim Hubbard - People


Imaginatively picaresque and often gut-wrenching.
Alex Kuczynski - O Magazine


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.
Publishers Weekly


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. —Jan Blodgett, Davidson Coll. Lib. NC
Library Journal


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. —Carolyn Kubisz
Booklist


A "practice baby" grows up to be the most indifferent guy, in this multilayered new novel from Grunwald. 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



Discussion Questions 
1. Trust is a recurring theme in Lisa Grunwald’s novel. Which characters are most deeply affected by its presence or absence? What makes us trust another person, and what happens if that trust is betrayed? Can a relationship recover after trust has been broken?

2. For Martha Gaines, “there was no future for her without Henry. There was only her tiny world, bordered by practice walls and practice floors.” (p. 113) Why does Martha become so attached to Henry, and how would you describe their relationship?

3. Is it possible to love a person too much? Have you ever felt smothered by love? Is there a secret to building a relationship where both people feel equally loved?

4. According to Martha, “a child was something to manage, not to be managed by.” (p. 44). Do you agree with her ideas on raising children? Describe and compare the different child-rearing approaches that are explored in this story. Are they all outdated now, or do any of them still hold weight?

5. How does Henry’s early experience—being tended by a number of devoted practice mothers—affect his personality as he grows up? What is the downside to his unusual upbringing? What are the benefits?

6. As a child, Henry covers the walls of his closet with his own drawings, so that the closet becomes “a place of deep colors, vast distances, and great possibilities.” (p. 141) How is Henry’s life shaped by his artistic gifts? In what ways do these gifts fall short? How are these shortcomings reflected in his relationships with women?

7. “Henry’s silence gave him a refuge, an excuse not to participate, but it was also a weapon for keeping Martha at bay.” (p. 145)  What brings on Henry’s silent period and what pulls him out of it? Why is silence such a powerful weapon? What other psychological weapons do we use against those closest to us?

8. Why is Henry drawn to Charles and Karen at the Humphrey School, and why is the couple’s home so important to him? How does their marriage compare with other romantic relationships depicted in The Irresistible Henry House?

9. At Martha’s funeral service, what does Henry discover as he describes her accomplishments? Do you think his epiphany is a momentary vision or a permanent change of heart? Is there anything truly redeeming about Martha?

10. What makes Henry choose Peace Jacobs, after so many girls and women have pursued him in vain?

11. Discuss the lifelong relationship between Henry and Mary Jane. How does Henry’s blinding of Mary Jane affect their friendship? What makes their connection to each other unique?

12. What does Grunwald’s portrayal of the lives and career options of women like Martha, Betty, and Ethel say about the opportunities for women in the mid-twentieth century? How much has changed since then?

13. As the author depicts Henry’s journey from practice baby to grown man, vivid historical details are revealed. When you look back at the various locations and decades that are depicted in The Irresistible Henry House, which scenes strike you as the most memorable, and why?

14. Over the course of the novel, Henry uses, betrays, and lies to nearly all the women who trust him. Do you consider Henry a likeable character despite this? To what extent can we blame his behavior on his upbringing? Is there a point at which we must take responsibility for our own actions?

15. Henry never meets his father or discovers his identity. Discuss the effects of this absence on Henry’s relationships with other men. What characters act as father figures for Henry?

16. Near the end of the book, Henry expresses gratitude toward Betty for choosing to go through with her pregnancy and giving him life. Beyond this initial gift, has Betty given anything to Henry as a mother? Has Henry inherited any of her characteristics?

17. Henry longs to find lasting love and a home of his own, but he finds himself chronically incapable of trust. Do you think there is hope for Henry? Can we ever truly transcend the effects of our upbringing?

18. What do you think will happen after the novel ends? Will Henry get to live in the home that he and Haley are drawing?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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