September 2016
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Review: The Astronaut Wives Club, Lily Koppel

the astronaut wives clubNeil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are household names (although admittedly they and John Glenn are the only two astronaut names I recognize); they and the astronauts who originated the space program in particular are American national heroes. But their wives, while often in the spotlight alongside them, have been neglected as people. Groomed as ideal 50’s housewives, even when the 50’s were over, the wives of the astronauts never got much of a chance to show their own personalities, as whoever they were was sidelined in support of their famous husbands. But it wasn’t easy holding on while the man you loved was orbiting the earth or touching down on the moon. The Astronaut Wives Club is their story.

Although the mechanics of space flight are well over my head, the fact that human beings have flown into space is fascinating. These men – and now women – have truly put their lives at risk in pursuit of better knowledge and understanding for all of us. As I studied Russian in high school and college, the space race was something that we learned about in detail; I think I’ve probably heard more about Laika and Yuri Gagarin personally than I have about our own American astronauts. It’s a fascinating topic for me, and how much more fascinating are the lives of the women who supported these famous men in their endeavors? I’d heard some hype about The Astronaut Wives Club and I thought it was worth reading for myself.

Unfortunately, I found this book very disappointing. I definitely did not feel like I got to know the real personalities of any of the wives at all, though Koppel had access to a number of them for private interviews. The book is organized in groups of astronauts, so we start with the Mercury wives, then the Gemini wives, and finally the Apollo wives, and some of the wives stick through the whole book. But because there are so very many wives covered, it’s impossible to get to know any of them, and I kept forgetting which wife was married to which astronaut. I have an ARC, so I’m hoping the full edition has some sort of guide as to who is who, as well as some pictures, particularly since clothes and jewelry are described in great detail.

Even when I could remember who the wives were, their personalities are hardly painted with any level of detail, especially once the Gemini wives come into the picture. They decry the fact that they had to be portrayed in the press as perfect housewives when in reality they were women with feelings and thoughts and ambitions of their own, but this book certainly doesn’t get across the latter. They’re broad caricatures, defined almost exclusively, still, by what their husbands are doing. When her husband goes off into space, each woman gets a section to herself, but this mainly consists of anxiety about the flight and how they react to the potential loss of their husbands. They all worry that their husbands are having affairs (and with good cause as many of them did just that). The first Astrowife to get a divorce is really only depicted in the context of that divorce. The book is so short and there are so many wives that there is simply no chance to talk about anything else.

I suspect this book would have been much stronger if the focus was narrower. At the moment, while it’s organized, it feels like nothing more than a surface glimpse, with nothing of substance, and I don’t necessarily feel I actually understand the struggle of these women in any more detail than I might have guessed for myself. If the author had chosen to focus on just the Mercury Seven, or on one wife from each group, or something to that effect, I think the book would have been a lot stronger. Instead, it’s simply a chatty, gossipy commentary that only skims the surface of the true feelings and personalities of these women. Disappointing.

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