Thursday, May 27, 2010

Book Review: Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald

Today I finished up Lisa Grunwald's "Irresistible Henry House"  - I'm not at all sure what drew me to this novel, sometimes those are the best discoveries though.

The year is 1948 and Henry House is an infant on loan from a local orphanage to Wilton college's home economics "practice house". While cruel by current standards, it's possible to imagine a time when it's accepted to have "practice babies" and even desirable to adopt one of these practice babies when they are released from the teaching home at the age of two. State of the art baby-raising and many "mothers" over the course of the semesters Principle characters include Martha - the house mother who has supervised the raising of every previous house baby (Hazel, Henrietta, Harry, etc), Betty  the young woman (and the daughter of the University President) who gave Henry up and then returns briefly as one of that semesters home economics students. It's the dawn of Dr. Benjamin Spock - and Martha's methods of baby raising are challenged - during and after Henry's tenure as a practice baby.

Henry is the first house baby to stay in the practice house past infancy. At the ripe old age of two his place in the nursery is taken over by "Hazel House" and Henry moves upstairs, now living as Martha's child. He's not adopted nor is he available for adoption - enough on the outside yet still possessive of the manipulative charm that will carry him through his young life - not choosing his favorite so that he may continue to have them all. There is a deep sense that he will grow up scarred, tainted, damaged and bitter. There are moments when I thought to myself - "my god, he's going to turn into a serial killer".

Henry's entire life is patterned on his early exposure to multiple mothers and his focus as the center of their attention - he learns early to manipulate them according to his whims. As much as Henry manipulates others he too is manipulated and lied to by the adults who raise him. Some of these lies are unforgivable and will force him down one path that he might not otherwise travel. Martha maintains guardianship of Henry on the whim of Henry's grandfather - with no legal grounds to his custody. Martha is at the same time smothering and cold and distant - overprotective and reckless. In many ways she becomes the stereotypical unmarried aging woman of the 1950s - and Miss Grunwald seems content to invite the reader to that conclusion.

The plot is slow to unfold. The details of Henry's childhood offer more historical information than is really necessary. Henry himself becomes vastly more interesting as he moves toward adulthood and begins to feel out his place in the world. First as a mute and then as a teenager living on his own, then into his professional life and first real taste of love. At the half-way point of the audio book I was convinced that it was just a pleasant story and it was going to be a long slow journey to the end - but I found the last 4-5 hours to be quite compelling. There is a bit of a "Forrest Gump" quality to the storytelling: Henry as an infant, Henry as a young boy, Henry as a teenager, Henry as a young adult, Henry evolving into a mature adult. Those who orbit around Henry grow and change along with him (I picture Sally Field as Martha Gaines), some women he uses - some women use him. Henry is cunning and disarming - at once both charming and arrogant.

Overall, if you can work (listen) past the slow start (birth through age ten) there is more depth to Henry's character than might first suspect. The premise is promising and Miss Grunwald really does get "there", but the reader (listener) has to be patient. And it's worth waiting for...

Irresistible Henry House is narrated by Oliver Wyman - who just so happens to sound an awful lot like NBC's Chris Hanson (Dateline). Mr Wyman's narration is wry and honest. His Henry character (especially the young adult Henry) is exactly what I'd expect Henry to sound like - though I was VERY pleased when Henry outgrew Mr Wyman's childhood voice - there's something a little grating listening to a grown man express himself in toddler voice. To Mr. Wyman's credit, he manages several female voices without the typical (insulting) man voicing as a woman effect. I also thought Mr Wyman offered his listeners a very convincing 1960's British accent as well.

Irresistible Henry House was written by Lisa Grunwald and narrated by Oliver Wyman. The audiobook version of Irresistable Henry House was published by Audible, Inc. Irresistable Henry House has a run-time of 15 hours and 5 minutes and was released on April 20th, 2010. Irresistible Henry House is available from Amazon and from Audible.com.

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