Books: The Astronaut Wives Club

This was our book club’s selection this month, selected in large part because it is light, easy reading. Our previous book, The Sandcastle Girls, was a gripping story but full of tragedy. The Astronaut Wives Club is not devoid of tragedy, primarily the Apollo 1 disaster, but none of the book is deep enough to draw the reader in far enough to feel the grief all that strongly.

Lack of depth is my primary complaint about the book. I want to be drawn into a book, not read it casually as I might a magazine article in the doctor’s waiting room. There are a number of themes that could have been explored more deeply, but apparently Lily Koppel preferred breadth over depth.

A book which attempts to cover the entire span of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs cannot, of course, cover everything. If the focus were on the space missions themselves, it might work. But here the focus is on the wives and their families, and a book that tries to cover 49 families cannot do justice to any of their stories. Keeping track of who was who proved just about impossible.

The best part of the book was the beginning, dealing with just the seven wives of the first Mercury astronauts. If that part had been expanded to become the entire book, it might have been a much better story. Most of the themes that are touched on throughout the book are present in this first section, and those themes could have been developed far better.

It’s hard for us now to remember/imagine what it was like for women in the 1950’s. I grew up in the 1960’s and remember some aspects of American life during that era described in the book. But the subsequent decades have changed me along with the rest of our society, and the differences are stark.

I take it for granted that I can make my own career choices, though of course I take into account the effect those choices will have on my family. I do the majority of the shopping, cooking, and cleaning in our house, but it is as much because I prefer the results when I do it my way as because of expectations by either my husband or society.

The astronaut wives not only had to deal with all those expectations and restrictions but also with the added stress of being in the media spotlight because of who their husbands were. They felt obligated to maintain appearances, not only to avoid public embarrassment but also because there was a belief that their husbands’ success as astronauts depended on maintaining that image.

Sadly, even though all the wives experienced this, they did not feel free to share their fears and frustrations with one another. They did share it to a limited extent, and provided mutual support and companionship; that is the essence of the Astronauts Wives Club (the group itself, for which this book was named).

But they only shared what was already known to all of them, the fear that their husbands might not come back from a mission, and the difficulties imposed on them by reporters eager for insight into the lives of the astronauts’ families. They did not talk about marital difficulties, which were exacerbated by their husbands’ frequent absences for training.

In part, this was because they felt they were competing against one another for their husbands’ success. NASA wanted model families to show off, and each woman who wanted her husband to be chosen for the best spot in the best mission (generally, to be first at whatever was to be done) felt pressure to make her family and marriage appear the best.

Even what to wear in public was important, and the book goes into some detail describing clothing and hair styles. I’m sure there are places today where women feel obligated to dress fashionably, but when I look around at a gathering of friends or co-workers, I am sometimes struck by the wide variety of styles, from casual to dressed-up and in a range of colors and combinations that cannot possibly all be considered “in style.”

But I know that when I was growing up it was not that way. My mother refused to conform, choosing her clothes based on comfort, health, and durability, rather than on meeting social expectations. For that I know she was criticized and sometimes ridiculed. Fortunately, my father’s career was not affected (so far as I know) by her unconventional choices.

Developing all of this fully could have resulted in a fascinating book. But Koppel merely touches on these themes numerous times in the process of describing one woman after another. It’s not a bad book, but it could have been so much better.


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