Captivating story of a ''practice baby'' raised by multiple mothers

By Leah Greenblatt
Updated March 26, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

Literature is littered with the tales of plucky, undauntable orphans — Oliver Twist, Huck Finn, Harry Potter. But what happens to a little boy with too many mothers? In The Irresistible Henry House, Lisa Grunwald’s epic and thoroughly engrossing fifth novel, we meet Henry House, the ”practice baby” in a home economics program at a women’s college circa 1946. His purpose is to serve as a flesh-and-blood classroom aid, a trial child for housewives-in-training. (The ”practice baby” phenomenon, by the way, was entirely real — it flourished at universities until the late ’60s.)

Most babies are returned to their orphanages after two years’ service. Henry, though, is a toddler of such singular charm that the program’s leader, a grim, unyielding widow named Martha Gaines, fights to keep him for her own. And as he grows, Henry does prove to be exceptional: handsome, charismatic, and clever. But in making him the locus of so many maternal figures — ”like a human baton, continually handed off in the grueling relay of the first hundred weeks of life” — his practice mothers have created a boy whose well-mannered exterior conceals a roiling mass of confusion, rage, and emotional displacement.

As a teen, chafing increasingly at the attentions of Martha and the growing turmoil within himself, Henry finds ?escape first in art, then in boarding school, and later in the blossoming countercultures of California and London. ?His story will no doubt garner comparisons to fellow Zelig-like figures Benjamin Button and Forrest Gump. But Grunwald’s writing, while sometimes painted in the brushstrokes of allegory, rarely indulges in that kind of soft-focus sentimentality. Henry is deeply flawed? (he learns, for one, to treat women with the same detached impermanence he was conditioned in), but House sweeps along with such page-turning vitality that his story is indeed irresistible. A