"By the time Henry House was four months old," writes Lisa Grunwald at the start of her engaging fifth novel, "a copy of his picture was being carried in the pocketbooks of seven different women, each of whom called him her son." It is 1946, and Henry is a "practice baby"—one of a series of orphans loaned out to a home economics program at the fictional Wilton College, in Pennsylvania, so that groups of eager but inexperienced college girls can learn how to become proper mothers.
This intriguing premise, as Grunwald tells us in an author's note, draws its inspiration from actual "practice houses" scattered across the United States in the mid-20th century, with the result that "literally hundreds of infants started their lives being cared for by multiple mothers." The author even produces a photograph of one of them, a cherubic baby known as "Bobby Domecon," his last name a shortened form of "Domestic Economics."
Grunwald gives her fictional practice baby a more felicitous name—Henry House—the latest in a "cutely alliterative" series of names bestowed upon the orphans who pass through the house, among them Helen, Harold, Hannah, Hope, Heloise, Harvey, Holly, Hugh, and Harriet. "Did it matter that, over the course of the next six weeks, six different women would sing Henry House six different lullabies?" asks Grunwald. "Or hold him in six different favorite positions? Or nuzzle him close in the pillowy haven of six different perfumes?"
It matters a great deal, as things turn out. While still in diapers, Henry proves to be an irresistibly, almost pathologically charming creature, possessed of a "primal skill in discerning women's longings and fitting himself, puzzle-piece-like, into the rounded clutch of those needs."
To know him, it seems, is to love him.
Even the steely Martha Gaines, who until now has run the practice house with an iron hand and an apparent absence of maternal feeling, finds herself smitten. When it comes time to return Henry to the orphanage for placement in a more conventional home, Martha finds a way to buck the system and raise the boy as her own.
As he grows older, however, it becomes clear that the practice house has exacted a toll. After years of being passed around like "a human baton," Henry has charisma to burn, but it masks a great deal of confusion and resentment. His unorthodox start in life, Grunwald writes, "would have left any child's heart untrusting and splintered, if not snapped."
As the years pass in a "cloud of hope and charm," Henry's only meaningful emotional connection is with Mary Jane, the girl next door. He perceives her in a burst of color, the first stirrings of his future career as a professional artist: her hair is as white as "vanilla pudding," and her eyes, "as Henry saw them, were the same shade of blue as the game piece in the board game Sorry. He loved her immediately."
And here his troubles begin. Though Henry has acquired a wide array of domestic skills in the practice house—he cooks! he cleans!—he is uniquely ill-equipped for love. By the time he hits puberty, his relationship with Mary Jane has become strained and he has turned his back on Martha, his surrogate mother.
Still in his teens, Henry House seizes on his artistic talent as an avenue of escape, becoming something of a Zelig figure at several cultural turnings of the 1960s. He lands a job at Disney Studios doing entry-level animation on Mary Poppins, crossing paths with both Walt Disney and Julie Andrews, and heads to swinging London to lend his talents to the Beatles film Yellow Submarine, where no less a figure than John Lennon teaches him a thing or two about the creative process.
Grunwald is careful not to overplay the celebrity cameos, using them sparingly to illuminate Henry's predicament. She observes that Julie Andrews, who appears on the movie set with her own baby, is playing a character who is "a better mother to the children than their real mother." Similarly, John Lennon demonstrates a casual, unfettered access to his creative gifts, "the very instinct Henry lacked." Even Walt Disney's greatest flights of fancy are seen as a reflection of Henry's past. Disney's plan for an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT) is understood to be "just one big practice house."
Henry's eccentric childhood and later brushes with greatness invite comparison to the likes of Benjamin Button, Forrest Gump, and T. S. Garp. Some readers will find these echoes distracting, but the sure-handed Grunwald puts a wildly original spin on her character—"I'm not the guy anyone thinks I am," he says at one stage. That may sound glib, but for Henry it is the literal truth, and he struggles for much of the book to find out who he is beneath the polished surface. By the book's final pages, as Henry circles back to his beginnings and attempts to come to terms with them, most readers will have succumbed to his charm.
"What can I tell you?" Henry explains. "I'm universally irresistible."
Daniel Stashower previously reviewed Joseph Kanon's Stardust for AARP The Magazine Online.
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