By Elaine Showalter
Saturday, March 20, 2010; C08
THE IRRESISTIBLE HENRY HOUSE
By Lisa Grunwald
Random House. 412 pp. $25
Sometimes book titles are so importunate in their claims that they backfire. Unless they are meant as ironic, titles like "The Irresistible Henry House" incite you to resist a character with everything you've got. Lisa Grunwald's novel is not ironic; it tells the story of a young man who, like Benjamin Button or Forrest Gump, grows up in the second half of the 20th century, wins the hearts of many women and witnesses great moments of social change and cultural history. But where those earlier characters are allegorical time-travelers, Henry House is supposed to be a more-or-less normal human being, and that premise makes his actions hard to believe and accept.
Henry begins his life in 1946 as the "practice baby" in a home economics program at Wilton College in Pennsylvania. In an author's note, Grunwald explains how she discovered that from 1919 to the late 1960s, many American universities established model residences to teach college girls the science of domesticity and motherhood. Many also had resident babies from local orphanages who lived in these houses until they were put up for adoption, prize candidates, certified like healthy and trained pets. Grunwald's "wish for an answer" about the fate of these children "is what inspired this novel."
Although Grunwald describes early home economics as a feminist initiative, the novel seems to condemn collective mothering as a dangerous assault on the infant's sense of belonging, attachment and trust. Moreover, it puts heavy blame on the director of the Wilton program, Martha Gaines, trained in the old-school child behaviorist methods of John Watson, for warping young Henry by strictly timed feedings and naps. Dr. Spock's "Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care" has just been published, but it is many years before Martha accepts its progressive message.
Henry grows up surrounded by doting young women, including his secret birth mother, Betty, the daughter of the college president, but he is adopted by Martha, whose neediness conceals her own secret tragedy. Paradoxically, the love and attention he receives from her make him feel smothered, confused and angry. When he finds out about his real parentage, he stops speaking, to punish Martha for lying to him and to escape her: "His muteness gave him protection from Martha, a zone around him -- like Superman's Fortress of Solitude." Henry maintains his elective mutism even when he is sent away to a compassionate boarding school and discovers that he is sexually irresistible to his classmates. In 1963, he leaves the school and moves to New York to live with Betty, who has taken a job at Time magazine, which Grunwald's late father, Henry (hmm!), once edited.
Only 17, Henry becomes a graphics artist and takes a job at Walt Disney Studios as an animator for the movie "Mary Poppins," which also has a theme of children with a surrogate parent. In 1968, he moves to Swinging London, where he works on the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine" and takes advantage of the sexual revolution to test his powers over women. But he remains cruelly unforgiving of poor Martha.
While Grunwald brought a charming lightness of touch to the characters and themes of her other novels, especially "Whatever Makes You Happy," she loads this book down with implausible motives of childhood rebellion, didactic messages about parenting and heavy-handed vignettes of popular culture. Henry's reactions seem way out of proportion to his experiences. It's hard to accept that receiving the adoring, if scientifically scheduled, care of many mothers instead of one would be so traumatic for a baby, and Henry seems a very pallid, passive and self-centered figure to attract so much devotion from women and girls.
Grunwald is more convincing with her female characters, including Martha and Betty, but they're marginal; this novel is not the story of mothers who had to give up a child to adoption or endure the loss of a son's affection. Henry House is certainly precocious, but that doesn't make him irresistible.
Showalter is the author, most recently, of "A Jury of Her Peers: Celebrating American Women Writers From Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx."