Behind Every Great Man: The Forgotten Women Behind the World's Famous and Infamous; Marlene Wagman-Geller
“Behind Every Great Man” has a great—pardon the pun—premise: highlighting the lives of extraordinary women whose lives and accomplishments have been forgotten in the shadow of their famous—or infamous—husbands. Forty women whose names have been forgotten, some while still alive, is documented in short 5-8 page chapters in a rather light and sometimes humorous manner. But for how perfect this books sounds, how desperately I wanted to praise these forgotten sister’s accomplishments, about 80% of the time, that wasn’t the case.
The author is talented; often non-fiction can be pretty dry and just a slog to get through, even if the subject matter is titillating. I was often entertained and enjoying Geller’s writing style, but where the book fell apart was, sadly, in its subject matter. For one, the chapters were far too short to give some of these women their due, often focusing way, WAY more on how these women stuck by their cheating—and sometimes abusive when drugs or alcohol was involved—men. Which makes their accomplishment, the very thing that history forgot them for, the fact that they didn’t abandon their husbands? Even if these women did so much more than put up with a man’s philandering ways, the way the chapters and information is presented makes it seem as if these women were just slaves for their husbands love. Which, you know, cute I guess? But that’s not the story I’m here for.
There are some women who I’m so glad that the author included as I felt like their accomplishments had 1. Been pushed aside for their husband's due to the time they lived in and 2. I was genuinely learning something. Women like Mrs. Bill Wilson (creator of AA), Mrs. Oskar Schindler (yes, THAT Schindler), Mrs. Jim Henson (co-creator of the Muppets) to just name a few, these women 100% were perfect for this kind of book. But more often, the women included were questionable at best. I enjoyed that some of the wives included were for bad men (like Hitler’s mistress/wife) but others aren’t really worth the page time when the author should, and could have, spent more time on the truly forgotten wives of history and elaborating on their personal accomplishments independent of their “great men”.
What are some examples of the questionable additions, you may ask? Let me tell you: Larry Flynt’s wife (of Hustler fame), Jim Morrison’s wife (of the Doors), and rock star Sting’s wife to just name some. These women didn’t do anything? Other than match their husband toe-for-toe when it came to drug consumption and having sex, I mean. Even if that isn’t true and they made huge contributions to some field, that’s all that was presented in their chapters—the fact that Sting and his wife gave a ton of money to save the rain forest is glossed over in favor of sticking to the tabloids of how the media hated her for taking Sting away from his first wife and maybe breaking up The Police.
But see, that’s my problem. Instead of telling us more about Nelson Mandela’s wife, or Ghandi’s wife and what they did that they should be remembered for, we get a lot of sensational information that feels like its ripped from some tabloid headline. It’s entertaining, sure, but not so when you are looking for a novel that’s an homage to some truly remarkable people. This is still a great concept, and my hope is that there are others out there who give their hand at this and choose to focus on the accomplishments a bit more than Geller did. But good intentions and premises do not a great novel make, unfortunately—and much to my dismay. So this is a 2.5 star for me, because even when I thought the right people were included, all the author shared was their devotion to their husband. Oh well, at least I learned something, kind of?
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