Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel

I always keep you guys updated on what I'm reading and what's on the horizon. Surprisingly (to me, anyway), there seemed to be a huge burst of interest in the comments about The Astronaut Wives Club, by Lily Koppel, and I'm here to fill you in on my most recent non-fiction read. 

Unsurprisingly, this book focuses on the wives of the first NASA astronauts during the height of the "space race" between the US and Russia. The book spans the years between the late 50s and on through the 60s and early 70s. There are some distinct "groups" of wives that come onto the scene as their husbands are recruited for astronaut training and eventually assigned specific missions into space. Originally, there were seven astronauts and wives, then a wave of nine additional, then 14 more, and then 19 more. In short, a lot of wives. A lot of astronauts. A lot of drama!

First, I should tell you that I gulped this book down, more or less, in a day. I think I read something like 225 of the 270ish pages last Sunday. Lily Koppel is an accomplished writer. She regularly contributes to the New York Times, and she's the author of the very popular, The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal.  Her work is not so much the writing of a hard-hitting journalist, but very conversational and personalized to her subjects. I know I've seen some comments around the blogosphere that this was bothersome to a few readers, but I found it extremely relatable and pleasant to read. Obviously, since I gulped it down!

I was completely invested in the first half of this book because there was a limited number of subjects. I definitely felt that I got closest to the original seven wives. Koppel was able to introduce each wife and her husband thoroughly: their personalities, their background and education, how they met and fell in love, the state of their marriage by the time the NASA years rolled around. It becomes immediately clear that NASA is a political place to be and a microcosm of 1950s and 60s values. The wives were expected to be perfect and uphold perfect marriages. They dressed a certain way, carried themselves like sophisticated ladies, and held up a great deal of the PR end of the deal. Upon completion of each mission, an astronaut wife was expected to step out on her lawn with a smile and celebrate a successful mission or appear supportive and confident in light of a failed mission. And did I mention that every household had its own Life magazine journalist around, like, all the time??? Yeah. They were constantly documented. Especially during the course of a mission. It was a lucrative financial arrangement, but can you image the suckage? Don't think I could do it.

I cannot imagine the pressure. There was a tangible sense of dread and heartache in Koppel's account of what these women endured. They put up with a lot of shit from their husbands. There were some philanderers and some saints, but every wife had to put on a perfect facade. Likewise, the astronauts were all acutely aware that they would not receive a space flight if their marriage did not appear solid and pristine.

My only significant issue with this book was in the second half. As more NASA families came onboard, the docket of "characters" got muddled. I had a hard time keeping up with who was who. I did a lot of Googling so I could put faces with names, and I was glad to have a directory in the front of the book to help me refresh my memory. The latter half of the book did focus on specific, memorable, vital missions (Apollo 1, the moon walk, Apollo 13, etc.).  But I still felt it could've been edited down quite a lot to include fewer wives with a more intimate knowledge of those who were included.

Despite the issues in the second half, I really enjoyed this book. I'm so glad the wives' story has finally been told, and it's really hard to believe that it hasn't been before now. This book is as much about the culture of the time period as it is about the individual families involved in NASA's heyday. It's about gender roles and gender politics, celebrity and sensationalism, history and heartache--the nation's growing pains and glory. 

Pub. Date: June 2013
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 9781455503254
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. I went after this baby as soon as I saw it!

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