A “practice baby” grows up to be the most indifferent guy, in this multilayered new novel from Grunwald (Whatever Makes You Happy, 2005, etc.).
As the baby boom begins in 1946, fictional Wilton College in Pennsylvania works hard to prepare young women for that all important MRS. degree. It even provides a home economics “practice house,” where coeds can hone their mother craft by caring for an infant on loan from the local orphanage. Each foundling is surnamed House by decree of Wilton’s middle-aged, widowed and childless doyenne of domestic science, Martha Gaines. Three-month-old Henry, the current rental baby, is diapered, bathed and bottle-fed by alternating shifts of college students under Martha’s hypercritical supervision. Though she’s firmly wedded to the parenting wisdom of that era (e.g., babies must be trained, not indulged), Martha finds long-dormant maternal yearnings awakened by winsome Henry. Through guile and well-placed blackmail she adopts him, and he remains at Wilton under the care of successive practice mothers. Manipulating multiple moms teaches Henry to view women as interchangeable pushovers. Female demands—especially Martha’s—repel him. A talented artist, Henry finds a haven with his beatnik art teachers in boarding school, until the birth of their child displaces him. His birth mother Betty, now a Manhattan career girl, offers temporary asylum from Martha, then unceremoniously abandons him. He finds work in Hollywood as a Disney animator, painting penguins for Mary Poppins (another story about a mother substitute). Then he moves on to London at the height of the Swinging Sixties to help animate the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. Henry is both irresistible and impervious to women other than his childhood friend Mary Jane, adept at the approach-avoidance game that is his Achilles’ heel. Then, one day Henry meets his narcissistic match in another former practice baby.
The near-omniscient narration perfectly suits this story, which often reads like a rueful but wry case study of nurture as nightmare.