It may take a village to raise a child, but the parts those villagers play are not necessarily interchangeable. In other news, regardless of whether or not you choose to practice "attachment parenting," healthy attachments are crucial to child development. By the way: these two ideas, which most modern parents accept quite readily, have not always been the standard.]
Even as recently as the mid-20th century, the emphasis was on child care rather than child development, and it was just one of the things homemakers had to learn to manage - setting schedules for feeding and naps, and not coddling or letting the baby's needs drive the mother's actions. Home economics was a popular major for college women, and some programs required students to learn and practice their skills in an actual home setting - with actual babies, usually obtained from a nearby orphanage or children's home. Lisa Grunwald's novel, The Irresistible Henry House, was inspired by these "practice baby" programs, and explores the effects of that upbringing on one particular (fictional, non-representative) child at a time when child-rearing theories and practices were evolving toward those we accept and follow today.
Henry is special from the very beginning. Martha Gaines, who has been in charge of Wilton College's "practice house" for years and has always been able to maintain her objectivity about both the students and the children she works with, has never felt herself drawn to a baby quite so strongly. As it happens, none of Henry's "practice mothers" is immune to his charms either, and an undercurrent of rivalry for his affections develops between Martha and student Betty Gardner. When an unexpected event forces Betty to leave the program - and the college - Martha sees a chance to claim Henry as her own. He remains in the practice house, but no longer has any other practice mothers; they come and go, rotating through the program in caring for each year's new baby, but Henry grows up with Martha as his sole mother figure. Under the focus of her needful attention and the varying influences of the young women who pass through his home, Henry comes to understand the effect he has on women...and longs to find one who will affect him in the same way]
Lisa Grunwald builds a compelling and compassionate story around a bit of recent history that seems very hard to grasp from our modern, child-centric, post-feminist perspective. From where we stand now, the pitfalls and difficulties of the practice-house arrangement seem obvious, but they probably weren't then, and I found them fascinating. Grunwald shifts narrative viewpoints at times and the perspective doesn't fully become Henry's until he reaches his teens, but the other voices provide an effective framework for his early life. It's not hard to believe that Henry becomes the person he is given the upbringing he had, and while his behavior is often unsympathetic, I never found his character to be. He's probably one of the most memorable, unique characters I've encountered in a while, actually. Any woman who's ever been attracted to that not-fully-available guy will understand why a variety of female characters are drawn to him, but what makes him particularly interesting is that he doesn't exactly want to be that guy.
The Irresistible Henry House is an engaging story that will take you back to a recent time we should be glad we don't live in any more, and it tells that story through some fascinating, well-developed characters - particularly the one names in the title.