Audiobook Review: The Wanderers by Meg Howrey
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Penguin Audio (March 14, 2017)
Length: 10 hrs and 43 mins
Narrator: Mozhan Marno
In the near future, a private aerospace company called Prime Space begins preparations for their mission to put the first human beings on Mars. Within their timeline of four years, they have put in place a number of planned test runs and experiments, a key one of them being the 17-month long simulation to prove that a small crew of three can indeed survive the long and rigorous journey to the red planet—while remaining physically and psychologically healthy enough to work independently and with each other.
The company’s international team—made up of astronauts Helen Kane, Yoshi Tanaka, and Sergei Kuznetzov—were not only chosen for their achievements and excellence in their field, but also for their personality profiles, backgrounds, and considerations into how well they would complement each other. Together, they will be held in isolation in a facility somewhere in a remote part of Utah, where the extremely realistic and immersive simulation will take place. During this test phase, Prime Space will be presenting the crew with all sorts of possible scenarios from technical malfunctions to personal emergencies to see how the astronauts will handle themselves in this environment. Their behaviors, actions, and conversations will all be monitored and recorded the entire time, with the data to be analyzed and evaluated by a team of psych experts.
But there’s a lot more to The Wanderers than just the story of Helen, Yoshi, and Sergei. Even people who live simple lives can have ripples of influence that spread far and wide, and for our astronauts, their ripples are especially large. Retired after decades of work at NASA, Helen Kane is almost a household name in America, but for all her fame, she cannot seem to bridge the emotional distance which exists between her and her daughter Mireille. Meanwhile, Yoshi and his wife Madoka are both very successful professionals in Japan, but because of the nature of their work, they can never be a traditional family, though neither is sure that is even what they want. And finally, there’s Sergei and his complicated relationship with his eldest son Dmitri. Following Sergei and his wife’s divorce and then his family’s subsequent move to New Jersey from Russia, Dmitri is coming of age at a very tumultuous time in his life, and he is searching for ways to tell his father who he really is.
As you can probably tell, at its heart The Wanderers is less a story about space travel and more a story about family—the complex relationships as well as the fundamental need to connect to your loved ones. The challenges that astronauts face are not limited to the endless training or the mental stresses of knowing how many things can go wrong in space, but also extends to the strain of being away so long from those nearest and dearest to them. By shifting back and forth between the perspectives of the astronaut characters and their family members, the author shows how deep some of those emotions can run. Torn between their love for spouses and children and their love for space travel and the work they do, Helen, Yoshi, and Sergei are shown to have a culture to themselves that Mireille, Madoka, and Dmitri cannot seem to understand. At times the bonds portrayed between the astronauts and their respective family members are tender, loving, and intimate; at others, the rage, guilt, regret and fear are so strong in the narrative that the negative energies are downright oppressive.
The other interesting element is Helen, Yoshi, and Sergei’s time inside of Prime Space’s simulation. Imagine being holed up in a small space with two other people for seventeen months, becoming familiar with their personalities and all their habits. Imagine knowing that 24/7 there are people watching you, recording you, making judgments on everything you say and do. Imagine being put through a simulation so realistic that after a time, the lines between what is real and what is virtually constructed become blurred to the point you can’t tell them apart anymore. As a reader, I found the implications of this very compelling, and the story does a great job making the effects on the characters disturbingly convincing.
In sum, The Wanderers is a different kind of space travel book, which made it both unique for me and also a little tough to get pulled into. While it’s true that I enjoyed quite a few things about this novel, there’s also a limit on the amount of drama and interpersonal conflict I can take. Admittedly, several times I felt this story push against those limits with its overbearing sentimentality or the characters’ angst, but on the whole, I would say I had a good time. Those would enjoyed Lily Brooks-Dalton’s Good Morning, Midnight might want to give this one a shot because I think both books explore some similar themes, though the edge probably goes to The Wanderers since it didn’t leave me feeling as gloomy or dispirited.
Audiobook Comments: I thought Mozhan Marno’s narration was very good, especially in her portrayal of the international cast of characters speaking in their respective languages with their varying accents. I would even go as far as to say her reading probably made the story better, making what might have been a 3-star read feel like a 3.5, so The Wanderers might be a good book to experience in audio if you’re interested in checking it out.