March 29, 2011

Reviews: "The Irresistible Henry House" and "The English American"

Jenna started an Adoption Reading Challenge for 2011. I'm constantly adding adoption-related books to my to-read list, so knocking off twelve (as the challenge called for) seemed like no problem. Bring it on!

Then I read a bit closer and realized it wasn't just twelve books: it was six non-fiction and six fiction. And I really don't like adoption-themed fiction. At least not most of the stuff I've read to this point, some of which did little more than make me want to hurl it against the wall.

But it's called a reading challenge for a reason, yes?

I'm behind on writing up my reviews, so here is what I read in the first two months of the challenge:

The Irresistible Henry House: A NovelA little burst of articles in January about the practice baby phenomena brought The Irresistible Henry House to my attention. (For several decades in the early twentieth century, many college had practice houses as part of their home economics programs, spaces in which the (always female) students tried out skills they were learning. Some included the so-called "practice" babies: children from local orphanages who lived in the practice homes and were raised by the students as part of their classwork for a year or two, then placed for adoption.)

Henry House is a 1940s practice baby, cared for by a rotating group of students for his first two years. Only instead of then being sent back to the orphanage to be adopted, he is kept in the practice house to be raised as the (unofficial) son of the rigid, anxious head of the home ec program. The disordered attachment of Henry's early years follows him into adulthood, scuttling his relationships. And the secrets and lies other characters maintain about his origins and history unsurprisingly ruin lives.

Author Lisa Grunwald has said in interviews that she started out wanting to write a non-fiction book about what happened to the practice babies, but turned to fiction when it seemed like there just wasn't enough material to warrant a whole book. I found myself wishing she had stuck to writing an article instead. The dramatization just didn't work for me, especially the longer the book wore on. The further it got from the practice baby years--which are only the very beginning chapters--the less it held my interest; the characters were wafer-thin and there's a Forrest Gump-esque feel as Henry bounces through different Baby Boomer cultural milestones that felt forced. It's definitely a cautionary tale in support of honesty and openness in adoption, not to mention not pushing mothers into unwanted relinquishments in the first place. But little about Henry and the way the attachment stuff, really the core of the book, was portrayed rang true to me.

The English American: A NovelFor February I picked up The English American by Alison Larkin.  Like her novel's heroine, Larkin was born in the United States and adopted into an British family as an infant. In her adulthood she reconnected with her birth parents, moved to the States and launched a stand-up career with an act based on her adoption and reunion. The English American isn't autobiographical, but she drew on her own experience to give life to the characters and story.

Pippa Dunn--the titular English American--is in her late twenties, unhappy with her job and feeling aimless. She makes contact with her first mom and jumps into reunion with both feet, even impulsively moving in with her birth mom in the United States and working for her art organization. Then, of course, things get complicated as more of her birth parents' and others' less perfect selves come to light. Plus there is a love story for good measure.

The English American is chick lit, so some of the plot twists--especially the [spoiler alert] big romantic closing scene and unexpected professional success [end spoiler]--aren't exactly shockers if you're familiar with the genre. Some of the characters are a tad shallow and [spoiler alert] I wished the adoptive parents weren't quite so great or the birth parents quite so off-putting in the end, [end spoiler] but Pippa is complex, believable and funny. She shares her changing feelings about her adoption in an engaging, relate-able way, from her struggles over identity and loyalty to her feelings of not quite fitting in to the family she loves. It's an enjoyable read and a good introduction to basic adoptee rights issues (i.e. open records) and other adoption themes for people who aren't likely to dive into the world of adoptee blogs or memoirs.

So there you have it: one "bah" review and one "yay" review. Next up: I let myself read a memoir for March as a reward for tackling two adoption fiction books in a row.

8 comments:

Jody said...

Ooo, I never even thought of adoption fiction before, I may have to pick up the 'yay' one.

My name is Andy. said...

I've never hear of "practice babies". What a horrible concept!

Heather said...

@Andy - I know, isn't it awful?

mama c/ catherine said...

I hadn't heard of practice babies either. I was completely engrossed in both reviews. Thank you. Maybe I'll write mine now too....

Elly said...

I had the English American on my wishlist for a while (I can't remember why I took it off) but I might get it now. As a Brit who adopted in the US it's kind of relevant :)

oneinchofgrace said...

Thanks for sharing. I can't wait to read your review for March.

Rachel said...

I wanted to let you know that I’m doing a month’s worth of giveaways on my adoption blog, White Sugar, Brown Sugar, starting April 1. All items are coming from Etsy sellers and include: A Princess and the Frog tutu, custom made dolls for boys and girls, hair clips for little girls, adoption jewelry for moms, and much more. I hope you will check it out and tell your friends. There will be four easy ways to enter each giveaway.

KatjaMichelle said...

practice babies? practice babies? really?

I'm not sure what else to say on the subject...

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