By Lisa Grunwald
432 pages; Random House
Given up for adoption as an infant, handsome Henry House is being raised in a so-called practice house, a building where college girls studying home economics take turns acting as his loving mother, changing his diapers, reading to him—and then disappearing when the course ends. Based on a largely forgotten educational practice at such august institutions as Cornell University from around 1920 to the '60s, Lisa Grunwald's imaginatively picaresque and often gut-wrenching novel, The Irresistible Henry House, explores the psychological and social world of these children.
With his green eyes and winning smile, Henry captures the heart of Martha Gaines, the instructor who had previously lost her own child; he is allowed to spend his entire childhood in the house. But the unusual upbringing has its price: Forced to become attached to a series of different women, Henry grows into a young man who is terrified of choices, afraid to form allegiances, and struck literally dumb by what he perceives as serial maternal betrayal. "His muteness gave him protection," Grunwald writes, something like Superman's Fortress of Solitude, a refuge and a weapon to ward off love. Thrillingly astute in these sections, the narrative then takes a Forrest Gump–like turn: Henry works for Walt Disney, builds his one true friendship on a bucolic college campus, and gets his heart broken in London of the swinging '60s. If only Grunwald had kept her focus on the repairing of Henry's fractured soul, the conclusion of this adventurous novel might have been as fascinating as the idea that spawned it.