The Astronaut Wives Club, by Lily Koppel


Two and a half stars, read in June 2014.

A very interesting book that was also incredibly irritating for me to read. That time period is just . . . my nightmare: The facades of perfection, the “good housewife” image, the pretending you don’t know your husband is cheating on you because NASA wouldn’t let him fly if he didn’t have a publicly “happy marriage.” (Trudy Cooper, a pilot herself, had left Gordo when she discovered him cheating on her, but went back when it seemed that he might be chosen as an astronaut. Marge Slayton couldn’t let people know she had been divorced before she married Deke, because NASA required “stable home lives.”)

Soon Betty began to feel like a spy girl in a James Bond thriller. Federal investigators were canvassing Enon, making inquiries into the character of the Grissoms: How patriotic was [Gus’s] wife? How many times a week did she make home-cooked meals? Did she drink too much? Did communists regularly appear on their doorstep?

Koppel writes in the style of the fifties as well, which I think was a questionable choice as it involves a lot of offensive terminology. Just scanning back through it to write this review, I saw the word “pansy,” talk about someone picking up “a chiquita in a bar in Tijuana,” and “an exotic Asian dancer in a dark tiki bar.” Koppel refers to the women as “the wives” the entire time (which I remember really drove me crazy), calling their husbands “the boys,” but also talks at length about “Cape Cookies”—”pretty, tanned young things with their scantily clad bodies, obviously willing to do anything a spaceman desired”—and about Hollywood executives following the astronauts around, “picking up the cookie crumbs left in their wake.” In general, it’s a very sexist and occasionally racist style. I can see why she may have wanted it, because it contributes to the feeling of being there; then again, I don’t think most people actually want the experience of being there, for exactly these reasons. So.

Honestly, the 50s and 60s were just the worst. I’m glad Koppel decided to write about these women, because this is a fascinating moment in American history and their stories deserve to be told. But for me, the thing I’ll always remember about this book is how annoyed I felt while reading it.

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