The Irresistible Henry House
by Lisa Grunwald
This is a strange one, a book that is chocked full of interesting plot points, but that lacks any likable characters. Henry House is a practice baby provided by a local orphanage for a small Pennsylvania women’s college in the 1940s. This is something that really happened from 1919 to 1969; orphans were used in home economic courses to help teach young women how to care for babies.
Martha runs the practice house where Henry lives and eventually becomes his mother. We also find out who his real mother is and we see Henry live a Goldilocks-style life, with one mother too old to understand him and the other too young to care for him properly. Henry spends his whole life watching anyone he loves eventually leave him. Because of this he’s unable to form any real connections with people.
At one point Martha compares Henry’s upbringing to that of the rhesus monkeys that were experimented on. They were given wire “mothers” that dispensed milk and cloth “mothers.” The monkeys preferred the cloth surrogate mothers, but in the end they all went mad because they had no real mother, no real caregiver. It’s a dark and disturbing thought coming from the woman who is supposed to be his “mother.”
We follow Henry throughout his childhood and early adulthood, watching the world change around him in dramatic ways. The book is almost reminiscent of Forrest Gump in the fact that we see dozens of major events and famous people cross paths with Henry in one way or another. There’s a mini history lesson on each page and that was by far my favorite aspect of the novel.
BOTTOM LINE: Worth reading if you’re curious about the history of using practice babies or about Disney animators. The writing style reminds me a lot of John Irving – even when you don't like the characters the story is still quirky and compulsively readable, but it leaves me feeling dissatisfied. I think I would have preferred a nonfiction book on the subject to this.
“If he had no one, he figured, he would have no one to lose.”
Pair with a viewing of Disney’s Mary Popping and The Jungle Book, both of which are movies the fictitious Henry House worked on as an animator.
**There is a film called Saving Mr. Banks slated for release later this year. It tells the story of Walt Disney’s struggle to make a movie version of Mary Poppins. Tom Hanks plays Disney and Emma Thompson is starring as the author of the original novel. I’m definitely looking forward to it!