The Irresistible Henry House

The Irresistible Henry House

by Lisa Grunwald


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“Clever and accomplished . . . A little Irving, a little Doctorow, a little Winston Groom—[The Irresistible Henry House] is storytelling for story lovers; realism with an enchanting touch of fairy tale.”—Newsday

“Sweeps along with such page-turning vitality that [Henry’s] story is indeed irresistible. [Grade:] A”—Entertainment Weekly

In this captivating novel, bestselling author Lisa Grunwald gives us the sweeping tale of an irresistible hero and the many women who love him. In the middle of the twentieth century, in a home economics program at a prominent university, orphaned babies are being used to teach mothering skills to young women. For Henry House, raised in these unlikely circumstances, finding real love and learning to trust will prove to be the work of a lifetime. From his earliest days as a “practice baby” through his adult adventures in 1960s New York City, Disney’s Burbank studios, and the delirious world of the Beatles’ London, Henry remains handsome, charming, universally adored—but unable to return the affections of the many women who try to lay claim to his heart. It is not until Henry comes face-to-face with the truths of his past that he finds a chance for real love.

Praise for The Irresistible Henry House

“Like T. S. Garp, Forrest Gump or Benjamin Button, Henry House, the hero of Grunwald’s imaginative take on a little-known aspect of American academic life, has an unusual upbringing. Grunwald nails the era just as she ingeniously uses Henry and the women in his life to illuminate the heady rush of sexual freedom (and confusion) that signifi ed mid-century life.”Publishers Weekly (starred review, Pick of the Week)

“A smart, enjoyable read that will leave you with a pleasing thought: Even for guys who just aren’t that into anyone, there’s hope.”People 

“Truly extraordinary . . . Get ready for a story, an adventure, and a cast of characters you’ll never forget.”—Liz Smith

“Imaginatively picaresque and often gut-wrenching.”O: The Oprah Magazine

“Grunwald’s novel runs parallel to perfection.”Chicago Sun-Times

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812973228
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/16/2011
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 1,035,860
Product dimensions: 7.76(w) x 5.32(h) x 0.98(d)

About the Author

Lisa Grunwald is the author of the novels Whatever Makes You Happy, New Year’s Eve, The Theory of Everything, and Summer. Along with her husband, journalist Stephen J. Adler, she edited the bestselling anthologies Women’s Letters and Letters of the Century. Grunwald is a former contributing editor to Life and a former features editor of Esquire. She and Adler live in New York City with their two children.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Welcome Home, Henry

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.

The photograph showed Henry on the day he arrived at Wilton College in 1946. He was lying naked in his crib, his backside bare and sassy, his hair already shiny and dark, and his grin already firmly in place as he pulled up on his chubby hands and turned back toward the sound of his name.

Henry House was a practice baby, an orphan supplied by the local home for the purpose of teaching college women how to be proper mothers. For more than two decades, since the early 1920s, colleges across the country had offered home economics programs featuring practice kitchens, practice houses, and, sometimes, practice babies. Henry was the tenth such baby to come to the Wilton practice house. Like the other so-called House babies before him, he was expected to stay for two years and be tended to in week-long shifts by a half dozen practice mothers. In earnest, attentive rotations, they would live and sleep beside him as they learned the science of child rearing—feeding and diapering, soothing and playing—until it was time to pass him on to the next devoted trainee.

Raised, as a consequence, not with a pack of orphans by a single matron but as a single orphan by a pack of mothers, Henry House started life in a fragrant, dust-free, fractured world, where love and disappointment were both excessive and intertwined.

in 1946, the campus of wilton college sat like a misplaced postage stamp in the upper-left-hand corner of the mostly flat, still mostly rural Pennsylvania rectangle. Established in 1880, the college was one of the oldest in the country created solely for the education of women, and it drew, in nearly equal numbers, girls from the nearby farms and girls from the distant towns and girls from the glittering, ambitious East. If some arrived with the thought that home economics would offer an easy path, they had only to enter the practice house to be disabused of this notion.

Martha Gaines ran the program with an iron fist and a hidden heart, living full-time in the practice house while the undergraduates came and went. Martha considered the building hers, the students hers, the program hers. In 1926, she had been reassigned from her original post as a textiles instructor to design and run the practice baby program, and she had been in charge since the arrival of the very first House infant. Martha had overseen all the House babies since then, the single exception being during the previous year, when she had been urged (the gossip, she knew, said forced) to take a leave of absence. On this sharp, brisk autumn morning, with a new school year, a new group of mothers, and a new baby before her, Martha had never felt a deeper need to be in command.

Henry was in her arms. He was wearing bright red cotton pajamas and was wrapped, budlike, in a pale green cotton blanket. The date of his birth—June 12, 1946—had been written on a piece of orphanage stationery and fixed to his blanket with a large diaper pin. The orphans always arrived with numbers and, thanks to Martha’s one streak of whimsy, stayed on with cutely alliterative names: Helen House, then Harold House, then Hannah, Hope, Heloise, Harvey, Holly, Hugh, and Harriet. Only when they were adopted—which they invariably were, quite eagerly, as the prized products of modern child-rearing techniques—would they finally be given real names.

At the door of the practice house, Martha now exhaled a homecoming sigh, then expertly shifted the baby onto her left arm to open the door with her right.

“Welcome home, Henry,” she whispered, stepping into the entranceway and turning on the light.

Then she kissed one of the baby’s tiny, still-clenched hands—not his face, of course, for she rarely deviated from the rules she imposed on her student mothers, and one of those rules was not to indulge in undue physical affection. (“mother must not begin with s” was the admonition that Martha had stitched as a sampler years before.)

Now she tucked Henry’s fist back under the blanket and stepped into the nursery. It was ten-thirty on a Monday morning, and the girls weren’t scheduled to come until eleven, and that would give Martha barely enough time.

Henry looked at her, his eyes just mature enough to focus on hers. Martha shrugged off her tweed jacket, keeping the baby snugly against her chest and inhaling the talcum-y smell of his neck.

There had been times, in her previous year of exile, when Martha had not been sure she’d ever get to hold a House baby again. Relief and the lingering loneliness of her time away now galvanized her. With Henry up on her shoulder, she all but spun around the room, reaching for her tools: a fresh journal, a sharp pencil, a measuring tape, a diaper. As she gathered the things, she hummed the song that Bing Crosby had been crooning since the end of the war:

Kiss me once, then kiss me twice

Then kiss me once again

It’s been a long, long time.

the nursery had remained largely unchanged in the year of Martha’s absence. The walls were still the palest shade of green, with crisp white wainscoting that hemmed them in and kept them from seeming completely institutional. The changing table and a small dresser flanked the left-hand wall. A rocking chair and an oak side table sat beside the far window. A faded Oriental covered most of the dark wooden floor.

In general, the room was—like Martha herself—not altogether cold but not particularly inviting. Functional described them both. At forty-eight, Martha was no longer confident, slim, or remotely happy enough to be what most people would consider attractive. In recent years, her face had become doughy and less defined, as if the lines of her features were starting to smudge. Her body, often plump, had become heavyset, and she had taken to wearing, along with her tailored suits, a series of eccentrically colorful silk scarves that were meant to distract attention from the rest of her.

Today Martha’s scarf was bright turquoise and orange, and as she laid Henry on the changing table, he seemed transfixed by its pattern. Staring, he didn’t protest as she unwrapped his green blanket and, ribbon by ribbon, undid his red pajamas. Only then—from the cold and the shock of not being swaddled—did he begin to yell and squirm. Resolutely, Martha ignored his cries and unfastened his diaper pin. “You’re a strong one,” she said to him, unfolding her tape measure.

She measured the circumference of Henry’s head, then his height, his hands, and his feet. She noted the color of his skin, his eyes, his hair. She noticed and recorded a small extra flap of skin on his right ear, like the ear tags that came on those German teddy bears that had been so popular before the war.

“What’s that doing there?” she asked Henry, while he kept on bellowing.

He was only fourteen weeks old, and Martha usually preferred the practice babies to be five or six months when she got them. Irena Stahl at the orphanage, however, had been unusually firm in insisting that Henry was the healthiest candidate, and Martha—anxious to resume her duties—had been in no mood to argue, and certainly not to wait.

She turned Henry over on his belly and scrutinized his skin, running one large hand across the tiny span of his shoulder blades, no wider than an octave. She studied the small of his back, his buttocks, checking for imperfections, marveling at their absence.

She knew that the girls would be coming soon, and that she should dress the baby, and prepare him, and prepare herself as well, but for this one moment, he was hers, entirely hers, and all of his magnificent future, and his already insignificant past, fit grandly within the span of her hand. She scooped him up, and, despite herself, she kissed him firmly on the cheek.

For a moment, their eyes met again, and Martha felt a surge of longing. Furtively, she looked around the empty room. “Now you know,” she whispered to Henry. “I think I’m going to love you,” she said. “Don’t tell a soul.”

martha had put henry in the crib for his nap and had only just finished filling the diaper pail with cold water and borax when she heard the bustle of girls approaching the front door. She struggled not to envy them—their youth, their freedom, their endless choices. All of them would be freshmen this year, and though the freshmen were always more energetic than the sophomores, they also required more guidance.

Three of them stood in the doorway now, and Martha guessed they’d not come together. Two were conspicuously beautiful blondes and the third an agitated brunette in an ill-fitting boiled-wool jacket. “Beatrice. I’m Beatrice Marshall,” she said as if reciting a line she’d spent time rehearsing. “Did they tell you I was to join your class?”

“I have your name right here,” Martha said.

Beatrice attempted a relieved smile but revealed instead yellow teeth and anxious eyes. She removed her hat hastily, and her hair, which was fine and the color of brown sugar, flared up with static in a nervous halo. Inside, she took off her jacket, uncovering a dress that was clearly a hand-me-down special, or at least the veteran of one too many a harvest ball. By contrast, Grace Winslow, the taller of the two blondes, was perfectly done up in a camel-hair skirt, a white blouse, and a tidy French twist. The third girl, Constance Cummings, held a smart red purse in one hand and, in the other, the new bestselling paperback that Martha had already come to loathe, though she hadn’t yet managed to read it: The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, by Dr. Benjamin Spock. Swinging her long, straight hair over her shoulder, Connie settled into an armchair and sat—grave and expectant—with her bag at her side and her book in her lap, as if she was waiting for a sermon to start.

The fourth student to arrive was Ruby Allen, from West Virginia. Another farm girl, she was wearing a polka-dot dress and enormous Minnie Mouse shoes, and she greeted the others with an exuberant “Hi, y’all.” She was followed quickly by Ethel Neuholzer, who walked in with an Argus camera around her neck and a Clark Bar in her hand. She was a slightly chubby brunette with a Veronica Lake swoop to her hair and a blue bow that completely extinguished the intended smoldering effect. Within the next five minutes, she had reached into her voluminous purse to offer her new classmates Lucky Strikes, Life Savers, and Doublemint gum.

“Where’s the kid?” she asked.

By noon, the only one absent was Betty Lodge, but Martha already knew her. Betty Lodge—née Gardner—was the daughter of Dr. Nelson Gardner, the Wilton College president. Betty was a long-ago graduate of the Wilton Nursery School, which was still located just next door. Martha had known her since the day she turned two, because the staff and faculty had always been encouraged to attend her birthday parties.

At the moment, Betty had again become a much-clucked-over presence on campus, this time because her young husband, Fred, had been included in the War Department’s final list of dead and missing. With every month that passed, the chance of his being found alive became more and more negligible. Yet Betty, or so the chatter went, clung to reports of captured pilots and amnesiac prisoners. The year before, a bomber pilot who had been listed as dead had been found alive in a Rangoon hospital, and most people saw Betty’s enrollment in the home economics program as a testament to her faith that Fred had, like that pilot, survived the war.

She walked in nearly forty-five minutes late, a short, frail-boned eighteen-year-old with thatched blond hair and an almost storybook face. A sweetheart face, people called it. Slightly boyish, even more elfin, she would have made a perfect Peter Pan. She had pale skin, long, thin wrists, and oddly stubby hands. The lightness of her skin and the unusual brightness in her eyes made it look as if she might have just been beamed in from a neighboring star.

“Where’s the baby?” she asked before the front door had even closed behind her. Maybe it was something about the expectancy in her voice; maybe it was the little pearl buttons on her pale blue sweater set; maybe it was simply that Martha had known her for so long. Whatever the reason, Betty looked no older than twelve as she asked the question, and Martha felt a stab of sympathy for her.

“Sleeping,” Martha told her.

Betty turned immediately in the direction of the nursery and walked in without hesitation, a sense of entitlement trailing her like a scent. Martha’s sympathy ebbed. So this was what it would be like to have the president’s daughter here, she thought.

In a few moments, the rest of the girls had left the embrace of the living room chairs to form a clucking, perfumed bracket around the sides of Henry’s crib. It was a configuration they would resume any number of times in the many months that followed. And Henry, awake or asleep, in glee or discomfort, health or illness, would always be the exact focus of their six pairs of searching eyes. He would rarely disappoint the needs and hopes those eyes conveyed.

“He will wake up at one o’clock,” Martha began, with the certainty of a fortune-teller. “When he wakes up, he will need to be changed. He will then have his lunch. Eight ounces of formula, at room temperature. I will show you in a moment how to sterilize the bottles.”

“Do we get to play with him?” Ethel asked, fingering the strap on her camera.

Martha scowled. “When it’s your week to live in the practice house, you will of course prepare for and give all his feedings, including the ones in the middle of the night. You will take him outdoors for walks, maintain his crib and carriage bedding, bathe him, shampoo him, weigh and measure him, soak and wash his diapers—”

“Wash his diapers!” Grace said in horror.

“Wash. His. Diapers,” Martha repeated. She looked at the six women one by one, trying to make sure they were listening. “Taking care of a baby,” she said, “is the only important job that most of you will ever have.”

only beatrice had brought a notebook, and while the girls resumed their places on the armchairs and sofa, she clutched it as if it was a kickboard and she was just learning to swim. A few years back, Martha mused, she had taught another kid like this. Dumb as a spoon. Nervous as a fish. “Do we need to take notes?” Beatrice asked now, dropping her pen.

“Who didn’t bring a notebook?” Martha asked. Hands sprang up in unison, as if the girls were here not for a class but for a swearing-in.

not everyone who studied home economics at the practice house was completely incompetent, in Martha’s view. But even some of the most basic skills—like sterilizing a pacifier, say, without cloaking the place in the smell of burning rubber—seemed at times to tax the students’ capabilities. Martha had grown up the child of an Army captain, and inefficiency bothered her almost as much as carelessness did. She understood that her growing inability to hide her impatience was the main reason that Dean Swift, the head of the Department of Home Economics, and President Gardner had insisted she take her sabbatical. And that Carla Peabody, the insipid young college nurse, had gotten to run the practice house in her absence. And that Martha had spent most of the previous few weeks trying to eradicate the last traces of her.

Other than the previous year, that had been the only time when the leaders of the college had intruded into Martha’s life. She was determined that they would not do so again, and yet the shameful reality—so completely at odds with her character and the impression she usually gave—was that she was as perfectly vulnerable to their wishes as a baby like Henry was to hers.

Reading Group Guide

1. Trust is a recurring theme in Lisa Grunwald’s novel. Which characters are most deeply affected by its presence or absence? What makes us trust another person, and what happens if that trust is betrayed? Can a relationship recover after trust has been broken?

2. For Martha Gaines, “there was no future for her without Henry. There was only her tiny world, bordered by practice walls and practice floors.” (p. 113) Why does Martha become so attached to Henry, and how would you describe their relationship?

3. Is it possible to love a person too much? Have you ever felt smothered by love? Is there a secret to building a relationship where both people feel equally loved?

4. According to Martha, “a child was something to manage, not to be managed by.” (p. 44). Do you agree with her ideas on raising children? Describe and compare the different child-rearing approaches that are explored in this story. Are they all outdated now, or do any of them still hold weight?

5. How does Henry’s early experience—being tended by a number of devoted practice mothers—affect his personality as he grows up? What is the downside to his unusual upbringing? What are the benefits?

6. As a child, Henry covers the walls of his closet with his own drawings, so that the closet becomes “a place of deep colors, vast distances, and great possibilities.” (p. 141) How is Henry’s life shaped by his artistic gifts? In what ways do these gifts fall short? How are these shortcomings reflected in his relationships with women?

7. “Henry’s silence gave him a refuge, an excuse not to participate, but it was also a weapon for keeping Martha at bay.” (p. 145)  What brings on Henry’s silent period and what pulls him out of it? Why is silence such a powerful weapon? What other psychological weapons do we use against those closest to us?

8. Why is Henry drawn to Charles and Karen at the Humphrey School, and why is the couple’s home so important to him? How does their marriage compare with other romantic relationships depicted in The Irresistible Henry House?

9. At Martha’s funeral service, what does Henry discover as he describes her accomplishments? Do you think his epiphany is a momentary vision or a permanent change of heart? Is there anything truly redeeming about Martha?

10. What makes Henry choose Peace Jacobs, after so many girls and women have pursued him in vain? 

11. Discuss the lifelong relationship between Henry and Mary Jane. How does Henry’s blinding of Mary Jane affect their friendship? What makes their connection to each other unique?

12. What does Grunwald’s portrayal of the lives and career options of women like Martha, Betty, and Ethel say about the opportunities for women in the mid-twentieth century? How much has changed since then?

13. As the author depicts Henry’s journey from practice baby to grown man, vivid historical details are revealed. When you look back at the various locations and decades that are depicted in The Irresistible Henry House, which scenes strike you as the most memorable, and why?

14. Over the course of the novel, Henry uses, betrays, and lies to nearly all the women who trust him. Do you consider Henry a likeable character despite this? To what extent can we blame his behavior on his upbringing? Is there a point at which we must take responsibility for our own actions?

15. Henry never meets his father or discovers his identity. Discuss the effects of this absence on Henry’s relationships with other men. What characters act as father figures for Henry?

16. Near the end of the book, Henry expresses gratitude toward Betty for choosing to go through with her pregnancy and giving him life. Beyond this initial gift, has Betty given anything to Henry as a mother? Has Henry inherited any of her characteristics?

17. Henry longs to find lasting love and a home of his own, but he finds himself chronically incapable of trust. Do you think there is hope for Henry? Can we ever truly transcend the effects of our upbringing?

18. What do you think will happen after the novel ends? Will Henry get to live in the home that he and Haley are drawing?

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