Baby love goes too far in 'Irresistible Henry House'

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THE IRRESISTIBLE HENRY HOUSE, by Lisa Grunwald. Random House, 412 pp., $25.

Long story short: This is a fun book. With settings ranging from a 1940s Pennsylvania college campus to 1950s Manhattan to Southern California and London in the swinging '60s; with a cast including Walt Disney, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Julie Andrews and John Lennon; and with the clever and accomplished Lisa Grunwald at the wheel, "The Irresistible Henry House" is as advertised. Irresistible.

Henry House is one of a series of babies raised in a "practice house" as part of the home economics curriculum at Wilton College. Though Wilton is fictional, the concept is not: Grunwald explains in an afterword that real "practice babies" were supplied to Cornell University by a local orphanage through the early part of the 20th century. While researching another book, she ran into an online exhibit about the history of home ec at Cornell. There, she was captivated by the story of the practice babies, and by a black-and-white photo of one bare-bottomed chap with a "beguiling smile and roguish eyes."

Thus, Henry House was born - keeping the smile and the eyes, imagined by the author as green flecked with orange, and used to great advantage in her protagonist's romantic career. Which begins immediately, with the six smitten Wilton coeds who care for him in weekly rotation under the tutelage of their teacher, Martha Gaines. "At 48," Grunwald explains, "Martha was no longer confident, slim, or remotely happy enough to be what most people would consider attractive." This deeply lonely woman falls hardest of anyone for Henry House, refusing to return him to the orphanage when his time is up, keeping him at the college to raise him as her own. (Plot spoilers omitted here - expect some satisfying twists.)

In Grunwald's vision, Henry's unusual upbringing precludes him from attaching to any one of his caretakers, and the inability to experience one person as more dear than any other has harsh implications. Quickly Henry comes to see Martha Gaines not as a substitute mother but as the person who prevented him from ever having a mother. Though her adoration of him trumps her ability to deal with his brokenness, Martha can't help but know something has gone wrong. She reads of experiments with motherless lab monkeys: "In the absence of a single, consistent, living mother, they rocked ceaselessly, banged their heads, and chewed off their own fingers. Some of them shrieked and shouted. But others simply fell silent."

Henry's version of this damage causes him to leave Wilton for a boarding school for disturbed teenagers. There he is mentored by a cool art teacher, Charlie Falk, who has him sketch every day in what he calls a "Falk book." Henry's talent takes wing, and he is pointed in the direction of his future: art department jobs at publishing houses in Manhattan, a stint as a junior animator for Disney Studios and, finally, a spot on the London-based crew of the movie "Yellow Submarine." Everywhere he goes, women love him, and, despite his cold-heartedness, two of them never quite go away: one a nursery school playmate, the person who understands him best in the world; the other a "sibling" from the practice house who becomes a young adult as damaged as he is. The book ends with a salvo of pregnancies and babies, marking the characters' transition to adulthood, and Henry's chance to change.

A little Irving, a little Doctorow, a little Winston Groom ("Forrest Gump") - Grunwald's fifth novel is storytelling for story lovers; realism with an enchanting touch of fairy tale.

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