I picked this book up in a second-hand store simply on the basis of the title on the spine. I couldn’t see the front cover, I hadn’t heard of it before, I didn’t know anything about it other than what the title implied – a book that told “her version” about an unknown story.
When I read the blurb, I realised it wasn’t fiction, which is what I was primarily looking for but I thought it might be useful as research for a book I want to write in the next few years. Written and published in the mid-1990s (making it more than twenty years old now), Leigh Cato started with a simple concept as she watched “perfect” marriages disintegrate around her (her own included) and friends becoming involved with married men. How did the women being left and the women they were being left for see the two sides of the same story?
Perhaps the greatest achievement of this book is the fact that the author was able to convince so many women whose only commonality was a relationship with the same man to be interviewed for the book. There are seven sections in which interviews with similar stories are grouped together (“Where did I go wrong?”, “History repeats itself”, “Obsession”, “Coming to terms”, “Strange bedfellows”, “Happily ever after?” and “Have him back? You’ve got to be kidding!”). The first interview is usually the wife left behind and the second is usually the “other woman”.
I think I should say clearly, loudly and upfront that this is not the book to read if you are looking to have your faith in men affirmed or restored. It is a collection of some of the worst relationship behaviours ever perpetrated by the male of the species. Some of the stories also encompass the worst relationship behaviours ever perpetrated by the female of the species. But it’s a fascinating insight into why relationships break down and why others start up before their predecessors have come to a proper and respectful conclusion.
Some of the themes running through the stories are understandable. People who married too young and who never should have been married to each other in the first place. People who settled because they thought it was the best they could hope for despite a lack of genuine feelings. People who married because it was expected of them by family, friends and society.
But many are just too awful to ever be able to be understood. Men who marry for money and then disappear, moving onto the next target. Men who don’t actually want children and leave when their wives fall pregnant. Men who only want perfect children and can’t or won’t cope with disabilities, health challenges or the wrong gender. Men who cheat while their wives are giving birth and recuperating and whose main concern is how long it will be before they can get some at home again.
And then there are the stereotypes that are so obvious it makes you embarrassed for the men succumbing to them: mid-life crises, the thrill of the chase, their wives’ sisters.
At first I thought that it would have been interesting to read the men’s version of what went on, too. But most of the men the women are talking about were clearly emotionally stunted and I doubt they would have been able to talk openly in the same way the women did. After all, some of the men actually convinced the “other women” in their lives that their wives were house-bound invalids or lunatics who should have been locked up in asylums, making their affairs okay. When the wives turned up as healthy (both physically and mentally) as the average person, it often turned out to be a great shock. I’m not sure how those men would have explained away such epic lies.
This is one of those books that you read all while thinking to yourself, “I would never let that happen to me.” But when a man is showering you with flowers and champagne and telling you how much he loves you while neglecting to mention he’s already married with children, you can understand how he might slip under the radar. We want to trust. Not just women, men as well. But there are some people in this world who knowingly take advantage of that. Because they are gathered together in this book, it might seem like this kind of man is everywhere but I suspect (and hope) they are a small percentage of the population. And once they are exposed and confronted, they shrink and we realise how powerless they are. In fact, the only power they ever had derived from stealing it from those around them.
I hope to God no one is in the kind of relationships that this book describes but if you are, or if you think you might be, reading the interviews and comparing your own situation might be a good way to figure it out. If you’re not in a relationship, these are some terrific cautionary tales. And if you’re in a good relationship, this is a voyeuristic peek into how the other half lives that will make you glad you’ve got it as good as you do.
It’s also a terrific sociological contribution. Yes, it lacks the stuffy academic analysis but that’s what makes it so readable, so interesting. And because the author makes few judgements of her own, the reader can think what they want. I thought I was going to hate all the “other women” for their complete lack of respect and bimbo-like qualities but it’s not quite as simple as that. Each story has to be considered on its own merits.
The women, and I suspect the men, are well disguised to prevent law suits and public humiliation. There are a couple of people in the book who I think might be identifiable if they weren’t. It just goes to show that it doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor, famous or ordinary, nothing can be taken for granted and almost nothing is ever what it seems. And the truth is almost always stranger than any fiction that can be created.
*First published on Goodreads 4 January 2016