Given my love for all things midcentury--especially in relation to the space program--I couldn't wait to blast off into retro culture with this book.Given my love for all things midcentury--especially in relation to the space program--I couldn't wait to blast off into retro culture with this book. However, trying to get through this tedious, awful read was probably even more difficult than walking on the moon.
Koppel writes like a 7th grader putting together a book report the night before it's due (no offense to 7th graders). Her style is rambling, and she very frequently changes topics in the middle of paragraphs. Because her cast of characters is huge to begin with, and she never really fleshes any of them out, they become interchangeable. She'll then begin a paragraph talking about one astronaut couple and then abruptly switch POV midway through. She'll also omit signposts, so that you have no idea what she's talking about.
One paragraph begins by talking about the aviation program at Purdue University and sticks with that topic for about half a page, but then concludes with the following: "Not long after Martha had been named homecoming queen and 'Eternal Sweetheart' by a rival frat, Roger nabbed her. Lucky dog. That girl was drop-dead gorgeous, but no more so than his own wife, Barbara." Wait, I thought we were talking about the astronauts' education. How hard is it to either stay on topic or begin a new paragraph with a new topic sentence?
It also seems poorly researched, with no real information that couldn't be found on Google. Even so, she clearly didn't bother to Google even the most basic colloquialisms; for instance, she notes that one astronaut liked to say "dam-gum-it" (her spelling) whenever he was upset, when the term used back then was actually 'dadgummit.' The grammar and syntax are also horrifying. Minor errors, I guess, but their constant appearances suggest she doesn't really know much about the era or about writing.
Worst of all, she purposely writes in a retrograde, almost offensive tone that upholds midecentury hegemony instead of intelligently commenting on it. She constantly refers to the wives and other women as "girls" and seems to take no issue with some of the husbands' sexist attitudes toward their wives. Instead, she recounts them almost gleefully, as if to say, "He's so controlling, and he cheats! Boys will be boys! But she always cooks him steak and eggs at 5 am like a good wife!" Ugh. (Seriously, that's pretty much the book's subtext.) She also infers that some of the wives were 'catty' and jealous of each other but never provides sources or details. When the wives visit Mexico, one of them assumes a "native" who touched her leg must also be a lesbian; later, they're all relieved to find "their guys strutting into the room, reeking of maleness." Lesbian encounter narrowly avoided thanks to the "reeking" hyper-masculinity of their menfolk, thank goodness! Also, when the astronauts are warned that they might end up somewhere in "a jungle" if they overshoot their landing, OF COURSE they'll probably be eaten by cannibals, because you know how those "natives" are! It's really hard to tell whether these are examples of the wives' ignorance or Koppel's own stereotypes.
Writing about one wife meeting Janis Joplin, Koppel actually commits this to paper: "Janis might not have been conventionally beautiful, but Marge could tell she had a wonderful soul. How about pulling her frizzy hair back from her eyes? A little lipstick, maybe even a frost...Alas, there were so many souls to save." Just...no.
In fact, the entire book is highly superficial, never digging below the surface to uncover real insight into the wives' emotions, individual identities, relationships, or unique pressures. This could have been so much better. I'm sorely tempted to redo this 'mission.'
This book was a bit of an interesting paradox. It does a great job of drawing the reader into what seems a general consensus (backed up by compellingThis book was a bit of an interesting paradox. It does a great job of drawing the reader into what seems a general consensus (backed up by compelling evidence in the form of letters and interviews) that Plath's husband Hughes and her unpleasant sister-in-law, Olwyn are, well, unpleasant people who have done everything in their power to censure the poet's biographers. However, at the end of the book, the author declares that she is firmly on the side of Ted and Olywn, with no further explanation. Rather bewildering. Despite that, she provides fascinating insight into the travails of Plath's biography writers, brilliantly comparing their task to navigating the "labyrinth" of one of her interviewed subject's pack-rat home (which could, of course, apply to the stress of writing in general). She also amusingly notates the number of times that Olwyn blames "those feminists" for every unfavorable word ever written about Hughes. I tremble to think what Plath's sister-in-law would say of my own review, but Malcolm's subtle portrait skillfully renders her the mastermind of the carefully-disciplined Plath publicity machine....more