Lisa Grunwald’s “The Irresistible Henry House”

“The Irresistible Henry House,” by Lisa Grunwald, Random House, March 2010, 407 ppg., $25.

Best-selling author Lisa Grunwald has a winner in “The Irresistible Henry House,” an ambitious coming of age novel.

Ms. Grunwald has deep roots on the Island, including a summer as a 14-year-old intern reporter at The Vineyard Gazette in the 1970s. “House” is the fifth novel for the former LIFE and Esquire magazine editor. She resides in New York City with her husband and two children.

Just released by Random House, “The Irresistible Henry House” centers around the rearing practices – and the results – throughout the first 20 years of a boy’s life, between 1946 and 1966. The book also provides unique perspective on the results of social revolution in the 60s. Most readers will probably agree that this particular bit of social change was beneficial.

The story of Henry House is fiction but it’s based on real life child-rearing practices that will give you the willies. The real-life premise of the book was an accidental discovery. Ms. Grunwald, roaming around a Cornell University website doing research, noticed a classic bearskin rug snapshot of a cute tyke named Bobby Homecon, a contraction of the term “home economics.”

Turns out that Cornell and countless other institutions in the first half of the 20th century, took in orphans as “practice babies” for women majoring in home economics. Students “mothered” on a rotating basis for a year or two, then returned the little rascals to the orphanage for adoption.

In 1946, Henry House is the 16th infant to be raised in the home economics “house” at fictional Wilton College in rural Pennsylvania. Under the vigilant eye of Martha Gaines, director of the house, infants were raised or “trained,” as she put it, for two years before being returned to the orphanage as prime adoption candidates.

There are problems for Henry, however. First, Martha is working through the loss of her own child at birth and believes in the importance of rules over love, a sort of enlightened “spare the rod, spoil the child” Puritan approach.

Next, Henry has to accommodate six or seven new “mothers” each year for four years, rotating weekly in 24 hours a day, 7 days a week shifts. What’s a baby to do? Well, he learns how to please each of them but learns nothing about pleasing Henry, or being authentic, or engaging real feelings. Whew. Talk about abandonment issues.

See where Ms. Grunwald is heading here? Blasting out of the traditional 1940s into the nutty 1960s, Henry, now an artist/illustrator, is navigating through social upheaval without a compass. He takes us on a “Wild Toad” ride across the U.S. and Europe, with stops that include brushes with Dr. Benjamin Spock, Walt Disney, the Beatles and other icons.

Ms. Grunwald delivers Henry’s story in a clinical, dispassionate tone, particularly when Henry is thinking or speaking.

As a young boy Henry retreats into visuals – color, patterns and drawing – to sustain himself. He is mute for several years in adolescence. As a young man, he knows appropriate emotional responses from observation and experience. He does not feel them and becomes increasingly disconcerted. He does know what works…and he works it. He can win favor(s) easily but he cannot love.

There are plenty of layers in this book. Plots and subplots involving house mom Martha, Henry’s real mom, and a succession of young girls who find him…irresistible.

I found Henry irresistible too. I found myself rooting for this kid to figure it out before his heart shuts down for lack of trust and love.

Read this novel if: you are raising kids, you’ve already raised kids, or you’re planning to raise kids. Read it also if you were a kid yourself once – particularly if you were a Boomer kid.

Jack Shea is a regular contributor to The Times.