Recommended Reading: The Wanderers, by Meg Howrey

In Meg Howrey’s The Wanderers,* three astronauts don’t go into space.

Helen, Yoshi, and Sergei are all hyper-competent professionals, astronauts and engineers who’ve been to space and acquired a taste for it. When private company Prime announces that it plans to put people on Mars, these three people are its first choice for a crew. However, before they can set off for the red planet, they’re assigned a long (year and a half) simulation of the mission, to take place on Earth under the observation of Prime staff. It’s the command performance of a lifetime (“The day Helen stops being tested is the day no one needs her,” she realizes at one point).

While they’re “away,” the people they leave behind—Helen’s daughter, Sergei’s son, Yoshi’s wife—also have roles to play (“proud, happy, and thrilled,” as the astronauts’ wives put it in Apollo 13), despite their mixed feelings about the long separation.

In The Wanderers, Ms. Howrey combines realistic science fiction with fine interior portraiture; the result is mesmerizing. The nitty-gritty of extended living in space (disposable clothing, limited showers, myriad strategies to prevent boredom and relieve tension) is fascinating, showing just how single-minded astronauts are, how prepared they must be both for emergencies and for routine discomfort. It’s equally absorbing to dip into the astronauts’ minds; they are constantly aware of how they’re being perceived, fine-tuning their emotional reactions just as carefully as they would a loose wire or a faulty gauge on their spacecraft:

They are all in extreme close-up; one notices the appearance of a new eyebrow hair. And yet they must communicate as if they are not noticing this. They must protect themselves, from Prime, from one another, from whatever parts of themselves they are grasping in the dark.

Their extreme efforts are worth it because more than anything else, the astronauts want to get back to space, “the perfect thing, the incorruptible thing.”  This is the source of tension with their family members, who both resent and accept the astronauts’ ambitions and their desire to leave Earth. Helen’s daughter, a struggling actress, coaches her mother on how to smooth her affect, even though she felt abandoned as a child whenever her mother left for space. Yoshi’s wife Madoka, a successful businesswoman, isn’t sure she’s ever shown her husband her real self, and wonders if he knows that. Sergei’s two teenage sons are accustomed to long stretches without their blustery, tough father, but Dmitri struggles with the pressure of keeping his sexual orientation a secret; his emails to his father both conceal and reveal his fears.

Ambition and loneliness, family and the drive to explore, surveillance and performance, trust and obfuscation—the novel explores all these themes, and more (it is phenomenal on gender, how Helen pressures herself—probably necessarily—to be above reproach, the perfect astronaut without making it seem as if she’s trying). I loved The Wanderers, and highly recommend it.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.


Last Week’s Reading: March 5 – 11

The Wanderers, by Meg Howrey: I’ll post a longer review of this book soon, so for now I’ll just say that I loved it. The hook: three astronauts undertake a long-term simulated mission to Mars, and both they and the loved ones they leave behind struggle with isolation and epiphanies during their experience.

Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid: What a lovely novel. Exit West has that graceful fluidity that seems effortless but of course isn’t effortless at all, but the result of a writer’s very hard work. It’s about Saeed and Nadia, two young people falling in love as their city falls apart, destroyed in the conflict between government forces and militants. The pair begin to hear rumors of doors not between rooms, but between countries—doors that have been appearing all over the world. Soon migration doesn’t require a passport, but merely steps through an (unguarded door); the trouble becomes what to do once you find yourself on a beach in Greece, or a mansion in London, or a mountainside in California. As Nadia and Saeed navigate through strange new worlds, Mr. Hamid breaks up their narrative with vignettes of other migrants, giving a global feel to an otherwise intimate narrative. Beautiful writing and a timely tale. Highly recommended.

Baptism of Desire, by Louise Erdrich: I enjoyed this 1989 collection, Ms. Erdrich’s second, just as much as her first (Jacklight). The first group of poems plays with Catholic imagery and theology, while the second section includes narrative poems about various characters (like Mary Kroger, the butcher’s wife). The third section, my favorite, is a long poem, “Hydra,” about both the mythological figure and pregnancy. The prose tale of “Potchikoo’s Life After Death” makes up the fourth section (I don’t think I’ve seen a story in a short collection like this before, but I enjoyed it thoroughly). Poems about marriage, domestic life, and the natural world close this strong collection. You can read Baptism of Desire‘s first poem, “Fooling God,” at the Poetry Foundation.

What are you reading these days?