Admittedly, I have very little interest in anything regarding space travel. I tend to shy away from space-themed movies and my trip to Cape Canaveral in the early 90's remains one of my most dull childhood vacation memories. I love anything to do with travel and exploration, unless it happens to occur in space.
Lily Koppel's non-fiction book, The Astronauts Wives Club, is a look at the wives of first men in NASA. Although Koppel provides a detailed look at the space program, this is really a story grounded on planet earth. It is about families attempting to balance living under the constant duress from the risks associated with space exploration, while trying to maintain perfect appearances for the public.
There are many elements of The Astronauts Wives Club that I enjoyed. Much of the book takes place in the 1950's/60's and it has a Mad Men appeal to it. Prior to their husbands being picked by NASA, most of the families were scrapping by on a military salary. NASA made them part of a very elite group and as the country was fascinated by the "Space Race", the new NASA families found themselves in the spotlight. The spotlight wasn't limited to interviews, but also included lucrative give-aways like cars, houses and vacations. The women found themselves not only with more money to spend on their appearance, but also with the need to constantly work on their image. It was entertaining to read about their wardrobes and various styles.
This is also very much a story about female bonding. The NASA wives formed a tight bond through their shared experience. What they were going through was so unique, that even though they were a very mixed bunch of women, it brought them close together. There is so much tension and heartbreak with what these women had to endure behind the scenes, that it often made for an emotional read. in particular, some the photographs at the end of the book are emotionally riveting.
The Astronauts Wives Club offers a glimpse into what American life was like during the early years of NASA. The families involved in the space program were all picked not just for the husbands skills, but also for their qualities that made them seem like the perfect "All American Family". There was a constant stress to maintain their image, even when marriages were falling apart. The image had a higher value than the reality. Perfectionism was an American ideal.
The way Koppel arranged the book was at times confusing. There are so many women and families, that it is easy to become bogged down with trying to keep them all straight. It gets worse as the book progresses. I think that I would have enjoyed the book more, if she had left out some of the women or maybe arranged the book as a chapter for each wife/family. There was far too much jumping around with so many people.
The book was further bogged down by irrelevant facts. Some of the stories or details about the women didn't seem as important as others. It felt like Koppel did her interviews and had such an abundance of information that she went ahead and included everything. The book could have done with tighter editing to keep the pace flowing. Again, this gets worse towards the end of the book, when there are just too many people to follow and it feels like the general tone becomes repetitive.
Overall, I enjoyed The Astronauts Wives Club. It is the story of so many brave and adventurous families that were an important part of American History.