The problem is that he is - or at any rate seems to be - utterly incapable of making a true connection with any of them.
Though pure fiction, Henry is based on pure fact: from the 1920s until the end of the 1960s, college home economic classes around the country borrowed infants from orphanages to be used as "practice babies." I kid you not.
Grunwald reels you in with the book's tantalizing first line: "By the time Henry House was four months old, a copy of his picture was being carried in the pocketbooks of seven different women, each of whom called him her son."
We see Henry change his behavior to please whichever mother he happens to be with at the moment. By the time he is a man, his superpower is to make women become infatuated with him. But he is totally unavailable.
The novel begins in the middle of the 20th century, a time when science seemed to offer a solution to so many of society's problems. If science could be applied to technology and population growth and behavior, then why not to childrearing? Well, for one thing, the attempt to train half a dozen or so "practice mothers" at a time flew directly in the face of "attachment theory," being developed by psychiatrist Dr. John Bowlby, psychologist Mary Ainsworth, psychologist Harry Harlow, and others.
Attachment disorder-the result of the failure of an infant to form a strong bond in the first year or two of life-results in a host of childhood and adult problems, many of which Henry struggles in the novel to overcome.
For this week's CBS Doc Dot Com, I spoke to Grunwald about her exquisitely researched and written novel. We talked with psychiatrist Dr. William Fisher about attachment disorder, and we touched on other cockamamie parenting strategies, including the advice of psychologist John Watson in 1928: "Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning."
As a parent of two teenage boys, I can tell you with one hundred percent certainty that I am one hundred percent uncertain about how best to raise a child. However, I'm pretty sure that being a dependable, consistent source of love is key. And that Lisa Grunwald has created a delicious, intriguing, "how not to" book.
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