(Audio)Book Talk: THE ASTRONAUT WIVES CLUB, by Lily Koppel

THE ASTRONAUT WIVES CLUB by Lily Koppel  via indiebound.org
The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story
Lily Koppel (Twitter) (Facebook)
Audiobook read by Orlagh Cassidy (IMDb) (Facebook) (Twitter)
Grand Central Publishing (June 2013), Hardcover (ISBN 1455503258 / 9781455503254)
Nonfiction (history/biography), 288 pages
Source: purchased audiobook (Hachette Audio, 2013, ISBN 9781619696464; Audible ASIN B00CS9KH0O)
Reason for reading: Personal

Opening lines (Author’s Note):

“To be an astronaut wife meant tea with Jackie Kennedy, high-society galas, and instant celebrity. It meant smiling perfectly after a makeover by Life magazine, balancing an extravagantly lacquered rocket-style hairdo, and teetering in high heels at the crux of the space age.

“The astronaut wives were ordinary housewives, most all of them military wives living in drab housing on Navy and Air Force bases. When their husbands, the best test pilots in the country, were chosen to man America’s audacious adventure to beat the Russians in the space race, they suddenly found themselves very much in the public eye.

“As her husband trained for every possible aspect of spaceflight, each woman had to prepare for the day when she would have to face the television cameras, when the world would be scrutinizing her hair, her complexion, her outfit, her figure, her poise, her parenting skills, her diction, her charm, and most of all, her patriotism.”

Book description, from the publisher’s website
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. 

Comments: The combination of the Independence Day holiday and my ongoing Mad Men withdrawal made for ideal timing to read The Astronaut Wives Club,  Lily Koppel’s profile of the women who stood beside–and waited back on Earth for–the men of NASA during the decade-plus period of America’s full-tilt running of the Space Race. I read it on audio, and was so caught up in that I considered breaking my “audiobooks only during the commute” rule to keep listening–thanks to the holiday and a work-from-home day, I only had two commuting days the week I started it–but I held off, because I really didn’t want this one to end as soon as it did (and it probably would have gone even faster in print, so I’m glad I listened to it instead.)

The seven experienced pilots plucked from various branches of the military for NASA’s Mercury Project–one of whom would become the first American to fly into space–were hailed as pioneers and heroes, and celebrity quickly followed. Their wives got a taste of celebrity, too: each of them had her own assigned Life magazine reporter, and they conducted their own front-lawn press conferences while their husbands were in flight. The astronauts’ story has been told, but other than what was reported at the time–which was heavily controlled and stage-managed by NASA–the wives’ hasn’t been well-known. Koppel, who was able to interview quite a few of the wives for the book, brings them to the forefront and places them in the context of a period of rapid cultural and technological change. While their husbands’ work practically defined the promise of the future, their family lives in suburban Houston were freeze-framed in the 1950s.

It was understood within the NASA community that an astronaut’s career would suffer if his family didn’t fit the perfect mold–happy children and loyal, supportive wife waiting back at home–and the pressure to at least look the part was great. The perks that accompanied celebrity were appealing, but the demands and distractions that also came with it were less so. The strain of maintaining a perfect home for an often-absent spouse–although an astronaut husband would only be in space for a short time, most of his work was done in Cape Canaveral, Florida–was high. And all of this was overshadowed by the literal life-and-death nature of the job; by the time the Apollo program ended in the early 1970s, more than a half-dozen astronaut wives were widows. The only person who could truly understand what it was like to be an astronaut’s wife was another astronaut’s wife…and while many of these women have been friends for decades, some of those relationships couldn’t truly open up and deepen until they were out from under the demands of all that maintenance.

Koppel may be more interested in exploring the bonds between the wives, and the conditions that forged them, than in deep biographical details about the individual women themselves. I found that a bit frustrating at times, but it’s a good approach, because there are just so many women that equal, even treatment of each of them probably would have been less satisfying overall; the book would have either been too sketchy or too unwieldy. The Mercury Seven wives are prominent throughout the book, but as NASA expands into the Gemini and Apollo missions on its progress to the moon, the cast expands too; nine new astronauts (and wives) are brought in for Gemini, fourteen more are added for the early stages of Apollo, and so on. The program becomes more crowded and chaotic, and the later arrivals don’t get much individual attention in the book–but as these things go, they probably got less attention from the public at the time, too (especially after the moon was finally reached), so this treatment’s probably not out of place. The increasing sense of chaos mirrors that of the decade itself, and the book does a good job of connecting the personal stories to the larger societal one without turning its subjects into symbols–the personal stories don’t get lost.

The audio version of The Astronaut Wives Club is read by Orlagh Cassidy. I didn’t love some of her voice characterizations, particularly her attempts to replicate some of the better-known ones, but she otherwise conveyed the personal, intimate sense of the narrative well. The audio lacks any author’s notes or acknowledgements; for that reason, I’d be curious to see a print copy, because I wonder if the choices to feature some wives and not others (outside of the Mercury group, that is) were based on whether Koppel was able to talk with them while working on the book. And in any form, I really would have liked the book to be longer–it’s a fast and fascinating read, but I still want to know more about these women! I’m glad that Lily Koppel has brought out the story of the astronaut wives; they had a unique perspective on very significant recent history, and it deserves to be shared and heard. I hope that someday, we’ll get to hear even more.

Rating: Book, 4 of 5; Audio, 3.75 of 5
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