Several years ago, author Lisa Grunwald came across a photo online that stopped her cold. It was a smiling baby boy, one of dozens of “practice babies” supplied by an orphanage to the Cornell University home economics program, starting in 1919. Fascinated, Grunwald researched further and found that hundreds of such babies had spent their first years on college campuses, raised by a rotating group of female college students.
Henry House, the complex and thoroughly captivating protagonist of Grunwald’s resulting novel, was a practice baby at the fictional Wilton College in 1950s Pennsylvania. Raised in equal turns by tomboyish Edith, feminine Grace, conflicted Betty and a handful of other practice mothers, Henry never experienced the healthy parental attachment that modern child development research has shown is so crucial in the early years.
The closest he comes is with Martha, the aging and lonely head of the home ec program, who through a twist of fate gets to keep Henry even after he is no longer a practice baby. But Martha is not the mother Henry so desperately needs—she is secretive and manipulative. Henry escapes through silence, not speaking for years. Eventually, he is shipped off to a boarding school for “mental defectives,” where an art teacher helps him realize his gift for drawing and the coeds help him realize his gift for attracting girls of every kind. But he’s unable to commit—to school or friendship or love. He drifts from his birth mother’s New York City apartment to California in search of home.
The Irresistible Henry House is a soaring, heartfelt novel that spans three decades and an entire continent. Grunwald, author of several novels including Whatever Makes You Happy, creates a wholly original and all too human character in Henry House. Despite his quirks and shortcomings (or perhaps because of them), Henry is one of the most likeable, relatable characters in recent memory.
Amy Scribner writes from Olympia, Washington.
Review of Letters of the Century, edited by Lisa Grunwald