three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
46-May-June-2010
user_rating: 
0

A-The Irresistible Henry HouseLisa Grunwald, the author of Whatever Makes You Happy (2005), New Year's Eve (1998), The Theory of Everything (1992), and Summer (1987), explores the real-life "practice-baby" phenomenon--which was commonplace at universities until the 1960s.

The Story: Henry House, the orphan "practice baby" in a home economics program at a women's college in the late 1940s (when Dr. Spock was wielding his influence), charms his many would-be "mothers" so much that one, program director Martha Gaines, decides to raise Henry as her own. As he grows, Henry retains his charisma--but life with his would-be mothers has created rage just below his calm demeanor. The novel follows the baby boomer as he comes of age through the 1960s--from life in a boarding house for troubled teens to work at Burbank's Disney Studios to Berkeley's days of protest and free love and the Beatles' psychedelic London--and strives to define himself, his relationships, and his desires.
Random House. 412 pages. $25. ISBN: 9781400063000

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"His story will no doubt garner comparisons to fellow Zelig-like figures Benjamin Button and Forrest Gump. But Grunwald's writing, while sometimes painted in the brushstrokes of allegory, rarely indulges in that kind of soft-focus sentimentality." Leah Greenblatt

Newsday 4 of 5 Stars
"Long story short: This is a fun book. ... A little Irving, a little Doctorow, a little Winston Groom (Forrest Gump)--Grunwald's fifth novel is storytelling for story lovers; realism with an enchanting touch of fairy tale." Marion Winik

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"As Grunwald's thoughtful novel suggests, babies weren't the only participants in the behavioral experiments of the last century: the caregivers were also guinea pigs. And ‘contact comfort' takes two." Liesl Schillinger

New York Times 2 of 5 Stars
"Ms. Grunwald's book is pragmatic and plain-spoken, yet it manages to be steadily baffling about its overall intent. ... It's just as interested in describing the Disney animators' workplace as it is in advancing Henry's biography." Janet Maslin

Washington Post 2 of 5 Stars
"Henry House is supposed to be a more-or-less normal human being, and that premise makes his actions hard to believe and accept. ... It's hard to accept that receiving the adoring, if scientifically scheduled, care of many mothers instead of one would be so traumatic for a baby, and Henry seems a very pallid, passive and self-centered figure to attract so much devotion from women and girls." Elaine Showalter

Critical Summary

Comparisons of Henry to Forrest Gump, Oliver Twist, Huck Finn, Benjamin Button, and Harry Potter abound, which offer promise to Grunwald's novel. However, critics diverged on the book's overall success. The most enthusiastic reviewers cited enchanting, enticing plots and characters, including cameos by Walt Disney, Dr. Benjamin Spock, John Lennon, and Julie Andrews. Yet the New York Times, in company with others, identified a lack of direction and more whimsy than insight into Henry's development; the Washington Post cited the novel as implausible and heavy-handed. Grunwald's novel explores an interesting concept and contains plenty of lively events, but it didn't all come together for many critics.