Source: Review copy
When seven men were named in 1959 as the first Americans to rocket into space, their wives could have had little idea of how their own lives were to be transformed. The Mercury astronauts had more than enough on their plates to keep them busy, taken away for days or even weeks at a time to complete their training while all the time competing against one another for the crown of being the first to make it to orbit. The women were military wives, used to moving from barracks to barracks, living on little pay and most with very small children. But from the moment that their husbands became household names, the very epitome of the American Dream, the wives were caught up in an inescapable whirlpool of cameras, reporters, White House visits and press conferences. They also had to put up with their husbands and in some cases that was no easy task. And then there was the fear… when one wife asked, she was informed that there was a 50/50 chance that her husband would return home alive.
The Astronaut Wives club, a non-fiction account, follows the lives of these women and their exclusive club from the beginning of the Mercury programme through to the last Apollo missions in the early 1970s. This covers the Mercury, Gemini and Moon wives, a group that grew to include about fifty women but when it all began there were just the seven, going where no woman had gone before while all the time maintaining their motto ‘Proud, Thrilled and Happy’.
This is such a fascinating story and there is a lot of story to tell. We hear about the special arrangement that the astronauts and their Astrowives had with Life magazine, an arrangement that was really a glorified life insurance policy that took over much of their lives. There was also the pressure on the wives to be the perfect American housewives, well-turned out with perfect hair and makeup and a kitchen full of the newest appliances to go with it. The meetings with the Kennedys added to the pressure although to most they were a great pleasure. The wives were able to cope to varying degrees – some were confident and assured, others had speech impediments and extreme shyness. Some had husbands who protected them and were well behaved, but many did not.
I was riveted by the lives of these women, especially Marilyn Lovell, Susan Borman and the other Apollo wives who had to endure those hours of darkness when their husbands were on the far side of the Moon. Of course, not all of the men survived and their wives’ experiences are especially poignant and tearful.
So, all well and good – a riveting story. But the problem with The Astronaut Wives Club is that the writing does not do justice to the lives of these women. There is almost no depth, no insight into how the women thought. The book is built upon interviews but there is little evidence of that. The focus throughout is on reeling off what the wives were up to, one thing after another, with no kind of analysis, while focusing on their shopping and makeup issues. These were intelligent women but you wouldn’t know it. I know that this was the 1950s and 60s but there is no need for the misogynistic ways of the past to have coloured so completely this interpretation of these women’s lives.
More than once I came close to putting the book aside, exasperated by the narrative’s triviality – the thrilling is made mundane time after time. In the latter part of the book when terrible tragedies had harmed these lives the style does pick up a little – it was in the nick of time – but it never gets close to revealing any true thought into what these wives and their husbands went through. The bouncy, cheery narrative also flits between the wives with such speed that it was very difficult to get to know more than a couple of them. It’s all so superficially touched upon. I would have loved to have learned so much more about the women, their husbands and children. There is a very brief recap of how their lives turned out since the space programmes as well as a few photographs, but I would have welcomes an awful lot more.
I was compelled to carry on by my deep interest in the extraordinary experiences that these wives went through, when they were almost treated like aliens from another world. It reminded me of reading Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff many years ago but it isn’t in the same class. The Astronaut Wives Club might serve to give the reader a taste or a glimpse into its subject but as a whole it does not do the women justice.