Monday, August 8, 2011

The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald

Title: The Irresistible Henry House
Author: Lisa Grunwald

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Americana / 1950s / 1960s / Disney)
Publisher/Publication Date: Random House Trade Paperbacks (8/16/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked it despite my initial resistance
Did I finish?: Yes -- once I started I had to finish!
One-sentence summary: The story of Henry House, a home economics 'practice baby', who struggles to learn what he wants and from whom, all the while navigating the changing landscapes of America in the '50s and '60s.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: Yes -- it's got the kitschy feel of the '50s and matches the hardcover version.

I'm reminded of...: Tobias Wolff

First line: By the time Henry House was four months old, a copy of his picture was being carried in the pocketbooks of seven different women, each of whom called him her son.

Was... the novel's real life inspiration one of the reasons I picked this up?: YES.  Grunwald even shares a snapshot that inspired the novel, from an archive at Cornell about practice babies.  Horrifying/fascinating!

Did... I totally fall for Henry's best friend Mary Jane?: YES.  I can't say why without spoiling the novel, but needless to say, she might be one of my favorite characters of 2011!

Did... I love the hilarious scene with Martha, the home ec teacher, and Dr Spock?: YES.  One of the few fiction-meets-real-world moments that delighted me!

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow for sure -- a fascinating read that I think would especially appeal to book clubs or anyone who digs the '50s and '60s.

Why did I get this book?: The '50s were weird and the weird things they did then fascinate/horrify me!

Review: Confession: I was a bit resistant to this book when I started it. I have little patience for damaged men and I wasn't sure I'd be interested in or care about Henry's emotional wounds.  An orphan baby lent out to a college's home economics program, Henry was raised by a series of practice mothers before being adopted by the head of the program, but as a result, he's irrevocably scarred.  As he grows up, he struggles to form and understand healthy relationships, opting instead for the pleasure of quick flings -- and succumbing to lure of the sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll '60s.

Once I started this book, though, I couldn't stop.  Even though Henry was damaged goods, and I found him and his behavior so maddening, the story wasn't really about his behaving badly.  It was about his searching for and fleeing from unconditional love, an exploration of the real world impact of a child denied emotional attachment as an infant.

As a historical novel, this book was engrossing, especially the juxtaposition of the squeaky clean world of late '50s Disney with the gritty, grimy, hazy landscape of London in the '60s.  There were a few Forrest Gump-ish moments I could have lived without, but they were rare and I could speed past them easily.  Grunwald's writing is effortless and I adored her secondary and tertiary characters.  I found them as vibrant and real as Henry; in particular, his best friend Mary Jane might be one of my favorite of this year.  (I'd love a book all about her!)

The last chapter of this book changed my review from 'okay' to 'like' -- it's bittersweet and hopeful and moving, and I raced to the end, satisfied with the conclusion.  I think this would be another great book club read, or an unusual historical novel for anyone wanting a change of pace, or fans of Mary Poppins or Yellow Submarine (two projects Henry works on, and Grunwald's obvious research is fascinating).  

*** *** ***


I'm excited to offer a paperback copy of The Irresistible Henry House to one lucky reader. To enter, leave a comment on this review. Open to US/CA readers, closes 9/2.


  1. What a fantastic premise for a book. It really is interesting to read about all of the complete whacko things people did in early eras.

  2. @Trisha: Seriously! It's frightening - and Grunwald's imagining of what those children would be like is heartbreaking!

  3. This sounds great! The 50s and 60s had their own brand of "everything is picture perfect as long as you don't look too close" mentality, so I would love to hear about all the crazy things Henry House went through. Thanks for the giveaway!

  4. I have never heard of "practice babies" - you are so right, the 50s was a very strange period of time. Interesting, and I like that you sort of evolved with the book. Great review!

  5. Oh, this is a book I have been intrigued by ever since it first came out. The idea of a "practice baby" is horrifying, but also really, really weird. I would love to read this one, and thought your review was wonderful!


  6. I'm reading this one next and am really looking forward to it. I'm sorry it wasn't a total hit for you, but I'm fascinated by the subject and generally fascinated by the 1950's and 1960's, so I hope I fare a bit better with it.

  7. @Carrie: I can't wait to see what you think of it! I suspect you'll like Mary Jane as much as I did -- she's SUCH a marvelous character!

  8. No need to enter me but you just reminded me that I own this book! I totally forgot I had it.

  9. @Ti: HA! I hope you review it if you do end up picking it up -- it was quite fascinating!

  10. It does sound good, but for once I am just gonna say perhaps not. Because you have read way too many good books lately ;)

  11. This book sounds so unique and different for that reason alone I'm intrigued But then I read what you wrote about Henry, how he was raised, and, having been denied emotional attachments as a child, he flees attachments now and much of his behavior is maddening and I realized this book is too bizzarre not to at least try reading. Wow, the 50s had some weird stuff happening! The fact that you ended up enjoying it helps!

    Loved your review, thank you! And thanks for giving away a copy!


  12. I would love to have something funny and quirky to read. Thank you for this giveaway.


  13. Great review! You have left me intrigued.

    lag110 at mchsi dot com

  14. Sounds like an interesting need to enter me though.

  15. I haven't heard of this but sounds so interesting. I had never heard of orphan babies being used as practice!!! That's awful!

    Please enter me: jennala(at)cfl(dot)rr(dot)com

  16. I've resisted this one for some reason, yet I took the time to put the audio on my iPod, so I was happy to read your favorable review. Nice job Audra.

  17. Please count me in. Thanks :)


  18. I'd love to give this book a try. It sounds interesting.
    mamabunny13 at gmail dot com

  19. Since I grew up in the 50's, I thought it was funny that you listed this as a historical novel, lol.

  20. I love the 50's cover!


  21. Practice babies? I never heard of this phenomenon! That is just too strange. Sounds like it was interesting in the end, though!

  22. This one has been on my Wish List. Please count me in. Thank you!

    nfmgirl AT gmail DOT com

  23. I don't read too many books set in this era but this one sounds good!

    bippityboppitybook AT ymail DOT com

  24. Ah, you keep reviewing so many books lately that I've seen at the bookstore and just couldn't decide on. And now I have to keep adding to my tbr pile. Thanks for the chance to win a copy of this one! :)

    jmartinez0415 [at] gmail [dot] com

  25. thanks for the chance to read this story :)

    kmkuka at yahoo dot com

  26. Please enter me in the draw!

    My email address is darlenesbooknook at gmail dot com.

    Thanks for the giveaway!

  27. I'm glad Henry's antics didn't turn you off from the book completely. :)

    Thanks for being a part of the tour.

  28. This looks really, really interesting!

    Thanks for the giveaway. I'd love to be entered!

    tardis5445 AT gmail DOT com

  29. This sounds like a fun quirky read

    chocolateandcroissants at yaho o . com

  30. This sounds so great! thank you for the contest!

    inthehammockblog at gmail dot com

  31. I bet I'll be able to relate to a lot of this book -- please throw my name into the hat! Thanks for the chance!

    geebee.reads AT gmail DOT com