"He wondered if he had ever truly missed anyone, or ever would" (p. 242). Years after his childhood in a practice house, Henry still feels the effects of not having a mother. Henry is the product of a unique upbringing: given up by his mother to an orphanage in the mid 1940s, Henry House becomes a practice baby in a home economics class at Wilton College in Pennsylvania. Martha Gaines, the instructor at the college, is responsible for leading young women in how to care for the practice baby, who is always given a name beginning with the letter H. Usually the practice babies are returned to the orphanage when they are ready to be adopted, but Martha adopts Henry as her own and he takes her last name. I won't go into the reasons here because I don't want to give away plot points.
Growing up in the practice house Henry learns not to show favoritism towards any of his "mothers" and eventually starts to ask questions about his parents. As he gets older Henry develops a talent for drawing as well as a lingering resentment toward Martha and his upbringing. Martha, a widow without any living children of her own, wants nothing more than to be a mother to Henry and to love him. The book follows Henry up to his early twenties as he pursues women without difficulty but always seems to have problems committing to (or choosing) one person. Henry's job experiences are also quite fascinating to read about, especially if you're a Disney fan. His passion and skill for drawing lead him to jobs in Los Angeles animating Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book for Disney and London animating Yellow Submarine.
Author Lisa Grunwald got the idea for the book when she found a photo of a practice baby on Cornell University's website (the photo is included at the end of the book). I had no idea that real babies were used in classes teaching mothering skills. I put The Irresistible Henry House on hold from the library because of its intriguing premise, and once I picked the book up I could not pry myself away from the words on the page. The rhythm to Grunwald's writing and the sense of history given to her characters reminds me of John Irving's work, who is another writer I enjoy.
The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald (2010), 412 pages.
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