Review: The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel

Review: The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily KoppelThe Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel
Published by Grand Central Publishing on June 11, 2013
Pages: 288
Goodreads |

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; JFK made it clear that platinum-blonde Rene Carpenter was his favorite; and licensed pilot Trudy Cooper arrived with a secret that needed to stay hidden from NASA. Together with the other wives they formed the Astronaut Wives Club, providing one another with support and friendship, coffee and cocktails. As their celebrity rose--and as divorce and tragic death began to touch their lives--they continued to rally together, and forming bonds that would withstand the test of time, and they have stayed friends for over half a century. THE ASTRONAUT WIVES CLUB tells the real story of the women who stood beside some of the biggest heroes in American history.

I had such high hopes for The Astronaut Wives Club. I’m a huge space junkie and have always thought that someone needed to write the wives’ story. Tom Wolfe told us a little bit about them in The Right Stuff, but it wasn’t nearly the kind of detail that I craved. Then I found this book. I felt like I won the space-junkie lottery. But I didn’t win the lottery. I didn’t even win a free ticket in the space-junkie scratch offs.

The Astronaut Wives Club was a giant disappointment. Here’s why:

There isn’t any research. I read five pages and immediately looked at the back of the book to see which sources Koppel used. She didn’t use any. Well, if she did she certainly didn’t compile a bibliography in the back. That was disappointment #1. It’s totally possible to write an engaging narrative using scholarship. Look at books like John Adams and 1776. Those public history books are completely engaging and interesting while still using enough scholarship to let us know that the author did their homework.

There isn’t any context. In order for these women’s lives to come alive, Koppel needed to set their experience within the social history of the country. There was a glimmer of hope when Koppel talks about NOW and the rising feminist movement in the 60s but she doesn’t go far enough. She said, “Oh, this thing happened” but never connected it to the wives. Disappointment #2. This could have been a rich story that connected the wives to the changing face of equality. There were plenty of wives who weren’t feminists. I’m not saying that she should have said, “These wives were feminists because …” BUT, Rene Carpenter certainly transformed from astronaut wife into a walking example of women’s lib. She hosted her own talk show where she did an in-depth analysis of contraception. And yet, none of that was placed in context with the changing social environment of the time period.

There isn’t any over arching narrative. Koppel ends a paragraph with a really moving, cliff-hanger sentence about one wife. And then she doesn’t  finish the story. She starts the next paragraph about something/someone else. I think it’s shoddy storytelling. It’s shoddy history. It’s shoddy writing. Disappointment #3.  Let me give you an example. This passage talks about the aftermath of Apollo 13 on Marilyn Lovell:

Jim and his crewmates made it home. Two weeks later, when Jim flew out for routine NASA business, Marilyn, who had held it together through the entire space debacle, completely fell apart. She just knew that she would never see him again. Jim came home in one piece, of course, but now whenever he headed off in his car to do some mundane errand, Marilyn was gripped by fear that she’d never see him again. Finally, she decided she had to see a psychiatrist, no matter the taboo. Her fears were unbearable.

Apollo 14 took off on January 31, 1971, commanded by Alan Shepard. Louise Shepard remained as composed as ever. ….

Do you see what I mean here? Koppel ends Marilyn’s story with this really important thread that remains unfinished. It was taboo for Marilyn to see a psychiatrist, but she did it anyway. THEN WHAT? This could have been so rich in commentary about the way NASA stifled the emotional health of the astronaut wives. There were so many instances of this, of an abrupt ending of one story to start another.

Want to know why this bothers me? It relates to disappointment #4. Koppel focuses a lot more on the space missions than she does on the wives themselves. I think she was trying to highlight how stressful each mission was on these women but she didn’t do a very good job. Sometimes I felt like their husbands were center stage. In a book that’s meant to emphasize the lives of astronaut wives, she sometimes pushes them to the back seat, just like NASA did and just like their husbands did.

Finally, I’m to disappointment #5. The book, titled The Astronaut Wives Club, doesn’t really talk about the club. It talks about how the club made several unsuccessful attempts at being a club but military/social politics between the women got in the way. They never sit around and share their fears with one another in the way that the title suggests. Instead, the wives supported their friends and neighbors in an unofficial way. They didn’t help every wife, just the wives that mattered to them.

The only reason why I gave The Astronaut Wives Club two stars is because I had a few moments of genuine interest and she gave me a few new tidbits of information that I didn’t know. In the end, this space junkie is thoroughly disappointed. This biography/history could have been so much more than it was.


© 2014, Jessica Workman Holland. All rights reserved.