The Irresistible Henry House

12/16/11 For the first 200 pages of Lisa Grunwald’s new novel, I really thought I was going to be writing a rave review. What an amazing premise! During the 1920s until the early 1960s, many colleges around the country, including Cornell, had home economics programs where women would learn mothering skills by caring for an infant from a local orphanage. When the baby turned two, he or she would be returned to the orphanage, adoption ready. No one had yet studied attachment disorder, and that these babies might suffer from being handled by so many “mothers” and prevented from fixing on one in particular was an idea not yet implanted in the academic–or cultural–consciousness. Thus we have Henry, who like all babies at the mythical Wilton College, is given the surname “House” (because he lives in the home economic department’s “practice house”). The unique thing about Henry, however (and a bit of a spoiler alert here), is that his biological mother is the daughter of the president of the college. She is married to a soldier, whom everyone at first thinks is dead and then turns up in Australia as a deserter. Henry is the result of a drunken one night stand with some guy, i.e., not her husband’s baby. Women seem to latch on to Henry. The head of the practice house wants to run away with him instead of returning him to the orphanage; his biological mother also harbors such fantasies. But all these adult women from Henry’s early life either lie to him or forget about him, and Henry ends up an extremely likeable, handsome young man who can’t quite get it together in a relationship. This part of the story is great. Where it takes a wrong turn is when Henry runs away from his school, and after a stint at the Disney Studios in the cartooning department working on the film of Mary Poppins (symbolism alert), moves to London to work on Yellow Submarine. We get the Beatles and Twiggy and bell bottoms and acid trips. Henry’s life becomes a trip through the culture of the 60s. And that’s boring and trite. All that’s too bad because Henry is a great character, and I had great expectations. Henry bears some resemblance to Pip, but Grunwald lets down her audience with a thud, I think. (A click on the book cover will take you to the Barnes and Noble website.)