Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel

The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel
Published June 2013 by Grand Central Publishing
Source: I bought this one to read with The Omaha Bookworms

Publisher's Summary:
As America's Mercury Seven astronauts were launched on death-defying missions, television cameras focused on the brave smiles of their young wives. Overnight, these women were transformed from military spouses into American royalty. They had tea with Jackie Kennedy, appeared on the cover of Life magazine, and quickly grew into fashion icons.

Annie Glenn, with her picture-perfect marriage, was the envy of the other wives; platinum-blonde Rene Carpenter was proclaimed JFK's favorite; and licensed pilot Trudy Cooper arrived on base with a secret. Together with the other wives they formed the Astronaut Wives Club, meeting regularly to provide support and friendship. Many became next-door neighbors and helped to raise each other's children by day, while going to glam parties at night as the country raced to land a man on the Moon.

As their celebrity rose-and as divorce and tragic death began to touch their lives-they continued to rally together, and the wives have now been friends for more than fifty years. THE ASTRONAUT WIVES CLUB tells the real story of the women who stood beside some of the biggest heroes in American history.

My Thoughts:
This is one of those books that you know from the moment you first hear of it, you will read it, not that you just want to read it. One of my most vivid childhood memories is sitting in front of a console television set at the home of family friends to watch men land on the moon. One of my all-time favorite books is Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff and I adore the movie it was adapted into. I knew the names of the wives of the first Mercury astronauts and was eager to learn more about their side of the story.

Neighbors peering into the home of Jim Lovell, Apollo 13
That's one of the things I liked about The Astronaut Wives Club: I liked learning about those ladies I was familiar with and the ladies whose husbands I was familiar with. I liked learning about how these women dealt with their husbands' absences, infidelities, and deaths. I was interested in reading about how the ladies got sucked into their husbands' competitive natures, how they rallied around each other in time of need, and how they dealt with fame. Given their unique positions, and the title of the book, I imagined that as each new group of astronauts was added, the wives with welcome them into the fold. Not so; it took a long time for the ladies to even begin to warm to the new wives.

All of that being said, there are a number of problems with The Astronaut Wives Club. There are a lot of astronaut families and while it may not be fair to say so, not all of them are equally interesting. Neither was the minutiae of the families' lives. It was enough to know that these people lived good lives thanks to the money they received from LIFE magazine and all of the other perks they received. It was interesting to learn how the "important" people wanted to welcome them into their lives but readers don't need the details of every event. A tighter focus would have made for a better book.

Scott Carpenter and daughter
Something that's been gnawing at me since I finished the book was the astronauts themselves. These guys were not, for the most part, the best husbands. Buzz Aldrin, for example, was a terribly cold man. Most of them cheated on their wives to some extent. Their careers came ahead of the families. Koppel would have readers believe that these men had very few redeeming characteristics. There must have been something that drew the wives to these men, that made them put up with the absences, the infidelities and the stress. Most of the marriages did end up breaking up (something like only 3 or 4 of the astronaut marriages survived) so maybe what Koppel got from these ladies didn't reflect that. It seems she might have dug a little deep for a fuller portrayal.

When it came time to choose a book for the Omaha Bookworms now annual multi-generational selection, I picked this one for the group thinking it would be interesting to get the opinion of those who might remember those heady days of the space race better. My parents were among those who read this book with us.

My dad says he well remembers "how squeaky clean those first astronauts and their wives looked and sounded when they were presented to us more than half a century ago." He was interested, as was I, to learn "how NASA and LIFE magazine crafted that image out of whole cloth." He added it was "comforting to know what I should have suspected all along - that they were human beings just like the rest of us, with many of the same fears, weaknesses, jealousy, and pettiness that motivate most of us." Very true, and I'm sure more so for readers who remember this time in history.

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