Three Looks at Female Desire in ‘Three Women’

Book review: Three Women, by Lisa Taddeo (Amazon / Book Depository)

Journalist Lisa Taddeo crisscrossed the country interviewing women about desire for eight years, eventually selecting three for deep-diving in Three Women. She moved to two of their towns in order to examine desire and the innermost details of their sex lives from their perspectives. I don’t think you would know this was the product of eight years of interviews if you weren’t told.

The prologue tells a captivating story about Taddeo’s young mother in Italy, seguing into how this project’s structure changed. At first she questioned “human desire”, thinking inevitably she’d be drawn to men’s stories. But it shifted as she realized how differently men and women perceived the same events, the “complexity and beauty and violence” in women’s experiences. I thought back to this when I finished reading, because ultimately, to me, these felt like stories of women in thrall to men, whose desires were so dependent upon the approval and attentions of specific men that they were the powerful ones in control.

Three Women has been hyped as illuminating female desire, but I didn’t read anything revolutionary here. Lina’s story especially is well-trodden ground, predictable at every turn. She’s an Indiana housewife whose husband doesn’t want sex or even to kiss her. She reconnects with her first love, Aidan, on Facebook, igniting a torrid affair. He’s only in it for sex but she falls in love, becoming obsessed.

Lina’s story is complicated by the fact that she was drugged and raped by three men at a party when she was a teenager — while dating Aidan. It ended their relationship. Did I mention he’s a prize? Now you know. She shrugs the rape off, mostly, and although we know about it as her narrative progresses, this early trauma doesn’t feel too connected to her present story. All the pieces were there for this to be a bigger, more meaningful study of some sort, but they never come together.

A passage captures why this was uncomfortable to read, as Lina drives to a rendezvous she feels Aidan flaking on: “Her eyes begin to twitch. She can barely concentrate on the road. She hired a babysitter she couldn’t afford, she ordered a pizza, she lied to her husband and her children. She put forty miles across two separate vehicles, one of them a lease with a limited number of free miles. She picks at something that isn’t there on her face…She begs God…If she has to go home, and all of this was for nothing, she believes she will die.” It’s obsession crossed with desperation laced with a frustration that doesn’t feel at all connected to passion or desire.

And that’s only one narrative. The other women are Sloane, a 40-something restaurateur in an East Coast summer resort town whose husband directs her to sleep with men while he watches or gets text/video updates; and Maggie, in her early twenties, who as a high school senior got involved with her English teacher. Sloane’s story feels barely there, making her motivations the most shallow or poorly explored.

It’s clear that Maggie’s story gripped Taddeo most, and I understand why. Maggie’s is the most complicated and nuanced, has years’ worth of history, and includes the trial of her abuser, Aaron Knodel, onetime North Dakota Teacher of the Year. He’s acquitted, she’s destroyed. For years after it ended, Maggie struggled with the aftermath, both the pain and confusion of what happened and feeling that she still loved him and wanted to reach out to him. It’s a hard, haunting story.

It’s also the one where — either through Maggie’s thoughts or Taddeo’s, this always felt unclear– we get the most insight into situations and psychology. This was an excellent example (although made me wonder, is this the book I’d rather read?): 

Aaron doesn’t say it explicitly but anyway all married men convey this general idea: their wives at home, their homely Maries, don’t have personal dreams or hopes. They are nice enough nobodies who suckered these interesting, cool men with excellent musical taste into marriage and child rearing and now the men have this opportunity to feel a bit of sunshine on their necks.

There was potential here that didn’t materialize. Taddeo is a camera and a diary, watching everything these women do and reporting their inner thoughts and feelings. It’s sometimes illuminating, sometimes exhausting, but it lacks analysis or context. There’s the context of backstories — Lina’s rape and nagging parents; Sloane’s rich, frosty parents and emotional struggles; Maggie’s alcoholic parents. (Parents are a recurring theme in their backgrounds.) Taddeo doesn’t parse information, just provides scenes and the women’s words. That’s valuable, but not enough. For a better example, see Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family, for which she also embedded for years with her subjects, providing a window into their lives but also analyzing intelligently and meaningfully.

Then there’s the writing. It can be compelling, but when it goes wrong, it goes very wrong. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense: “Danny is quiet and blond in front of other people but in private he’s fussy.” Does his hair change color in private? Worse are the metaphors and similes. Wine “tastes like cool sneezes,” a face “has the look of making out,” a hip has a “smiling bone” and a man is likened to a cashew. And my pet peeves, made-up nonsense compound nouns: loveflush, fearquick, deathcall.

“Every time he waters the lawn he imagines that the darting streams are his tears. He imagines you there, living in the soil, your small young hands reaching up to caress his aging ankles.”

What the actual fuck did I just read? Did the subject say she imagined this, or did Taddeo? This groan-worthy passage is supposed to convey ache as a woman longs for the man who abandoned her despite professing love, wondering if he thinks of her. The writing negates any attempt to take this seriously.

The sex descriptions are awkward, maybe because I’m not a romance reader so the melodrama seems laughable, but I think there’s more going on. “His thumb is inside her belly button” in one fantasy. Ouch. Elsewhere she dreams “of him sucking oysters from between her legs.” A Cadbury Creme Egg is employed for a purpose that sounds sourced from a Cosmo “30 Ways to Please Your Man” list.

I often found myself wondering what message the author wanted readers to take. She writes in the prologue, “I set out to register the heat and sting of female want so that men and other women might more easily comprehend before they condemn.” I mostly felt hurt for these women. There’s nothing happy or celebratory here. Even when the women are content or pleased, it’s with caveats of some kind. Is this really all we have to say about women’s longing, desire, and passion?

Others have criticized better than I can about its lack of attention to color or non-hetero sexuality, as it fails here entirely. Not every story can be every thing to every person, but the absence and homogeneity feel glaring. I expected more in every way.

Three Women
by Lisa Taddeo
published July 9, 2019

Amazon / Book Depository

38 thoughts on “Three Looks at Female Desire in ‘Three Women’

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  1. I kind of feel like, if I was going to read about female sexuality, I would want it to be with women who were confident in what they wanted. Not that any other form of it isn’t authentic, just that if the point is to empower women to embrace their sexuality, this book has failed.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Exactly. This didn’t feel inauthentic, one of the stories especially felt like one I’ve heard many times before, especially this idealization of a first love and near-frantic obsession over a relationship, but these experiences were so overwhelmingly negative. I felt hurt for the women most of the time, honestly.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. haha I visited your blog yesterday to see if you had a review of this so I’m glad to see this pop up on my feed! Genuinely confused about what a “fearquick” could possibly be. I was pretty skeptical of this book from the beginning, just from hearing her say that it’s about “female desire”, but then the book is all about sex. I think female desire is so much more complicated than that, so even the premise of it gave me pause. I think it’s going to be a skip for me. Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh wow, I’m so glad I ended up reviewing it then! You know it’s funny, I didn’t really touch on it in the review, but part of why I wasn’t excited about this book when I first heard of it is because I don’t really like reading about sex lives — I think desire’s way more complicated than that too and there are far more interesting things wrapped up in it and this just sounded a bit voyeuristic or reductive. It wasn’t until I read the prologue as a sample that I got interested, it was a phenomenal bit of writing about her mother and questions she had about her experience and feelings and what desires she’d kept hidden or quiet throughout her life. But the rest of the book was a plummeting letdown! And I’m sorry to report that even reading it in context, you will not be any less confused about what a fearquick is.


    1. I think I’m in the minority a bit though, definitely read some alternative takes on it if the topic really interests you! I just don’t think it lives up there its hype and I also didn’t get the point of it ultimately. And thanks for confirming, I would hope romance novels would be more appealing than this!!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t think it’s for me because I’m not seeing anything to learn here. I don’t read non fiction for entertainment only. That I leave for my great fiction shelf! My romance shelf is filled with talented writers (first) who know how to craft romantic stories without using stupid devices (thumb in the belly button? Really?). Even true crime, while entertaining, teaches me so much.

        I don’t think you’re an outlier for the genre. I’ve read the other reviews (why I was circling) and they read like they were analyzing fiction.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That’s exactly it, I didn’t learn anything here and I love reading to learn (and when the author makes it entertaining, all the better.) Instead, the instances of screech-to-a-halt bad writing just made it worse. I don’t get the buzz around this one, really.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed your review. This seems to be a much hyped book, which always makes me wary. Your examples of unfortunate writing made me smile. “Quiet and blond” should surely have been “quiet and bland”?? And I never want to drink wine which “tastes like cool sneezes”. Germs! Snot! Did it mean “cool breezes”?? Where was the editor? I have Random Family on my TBR list so am encouraged to get to it now. I suspect I will end up reading this one, it sounds to me like a good gripping voyeuristic nose into other people’s lives, which won’t make me feel good about myself – perhaps that’s why it’s been packaged as a profound insight into female desire, complete with classy cover – more palatable, easier to live with.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sadly I’m fairly sure they weren’t typos. Especially the blond one because it’s referring to a little kid so would be really rude to call him bland! I can’t really say this one was gripping for me, but others may find it that way. I would say don’t read something that you think won’t make you feel good about yourself when there’s so much better stuff out there to read!! It didn’t make me feel bad, just sad for the women and confused about why it’s being praised so much.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh how interesting. I’d heard nothing but amazing things about this before yesterday when I read an interesting review on instagram about the author’s bizarre treatment of sexual assault, and now seeing this makes me super wary. I got a copy from BOTM so I guess I’ll be reading it anyway, but with much, much lower expectations than I initially had. That sentence about watering the lawn… why. And nonsense compound words are one of my pet peeves as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What did the review you read say about sexual assault? It is a bit odd, like the assault in Lina’s past is nearly brushed aside (although it’s hard to tell if this was by her choice or the author’s) and the story between the student and teacher is complicated, which she acknowledges, but she doesn’t have enough space to really deal with it despite that narrative being the longest one here. It almost would’ve been better to have expanded that one to book-length, I think, and dealt with it more in-depth.

      With the writing, sometimes it’s fine, and I loved the prologue — you can see she’s got tons of talent, but then yikes. I was rolling my eyes so hard elsewhere, or else rereading because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. But I’d only read mostly positive reviews too, so who knows, it’s speaking to people. I read the NYT review after writing mine and they weren’t too enthused.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. From the review you shared: “It’s about trauma inflicted by men on women and the aftermath of what that looks like in 3 women’s experiences…I do not care for the way it is marketed, as I believe it will only reinforce the damaging normalization of women’s sexual trauma, having been presented as scandalous telling of female desire rather than heartbreaking coping mechanisms of trauma. None of these situations describe mentally healthy women.” EXACTLY!!! All I felt for these women was pain and the hope that they get help with the issues propelling them into these shitty relationships and behaviors, I don’t see at all where desire came into it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s almost worrisome how dissonant this book’s marketing seems to be with its content?

        I’m still planning on reading it (I’m not positive when) so I’ll definitely let you know my thoughts on all of this when I do.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I just got a copy of this book yesterday and am planning to read it, so I’m glad I found your review here. I hate to say this, but I am going into this not with an expectation to learn of women’s desire (the lack of color and dominance of cis-gender kills this) but to just read about suburban sex lives, tabloid style. Sorry, LOL….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Actually I think you’re going into it with exactly the right attitude and expectations and I suspect you’ll be far less disappointed than I was! Wanna know the best (sarcasm) part about the lack of color/cis-gender detail? The author said she wanted to profile women who were “relatable” (I think I read this in the NY Times review). lol. That should tell you everything you need to know.


  6. This book is hard-core being pushed at me by the ads on Goodreads. I’m so glad I didn’t add it. The writing sounds downright upsetting in a way that would make me anxious (I didn’t go through three creative writing degrees to come out normal. Hahahahaha). But anyway, that try-hard writing stands out no matter the credibility the piece has (a draft in a writing workshop or a published book), and I’m glad you noted it, sacrificing yourself for the rest of us! Not all heroes wear capes. 😀


    1. They went all out in the marketing of this one, didn’t they? And got it entirely wrong while they were at it, since it’s hardly about desire. I always feel like bad writing automatically makes me question credibility, whether that’s fair or not (it’s not, I know), but it’s like, if they didn’t care enough to polish their writing or just ensure that it makes sense and doesn’t sound ridiculous (see: wine like cool sneezes) how can I trust what else they’re selling me? And you’re welcome, I know it’s a great responsibility and I don’t take it lightly 🤣


  7. Oh no, this sounds like such a disappointment. I just got my copy through BOTM last week and was really looking forward to it, but all of the things you mention bothering you seem like they would bother me also. Especially the moments of nonsensical writing, with the made-up words and the odd descriptions. And to not even hit the mark of the book’s stated intent? Yikes. I’ll probably still check it out since I have a copy now, but I definitely won’t be expecting a 5-star read. Great review.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s still good to read to engage with all the dialogue that’s springing up around it, I think. I just find it strange that the actual content was so at odds with how it’s been marketed and described. I’m looking forward to hearing what you think of it, and I’m sorry to have disappointed you when you were really looking forward to it! Lots of people have loved it though, maybe it’ll still speak to you differently.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Inaccurate marketing is so bothersome! I’ll definitely still read the book before forming a solid opinion of it. But I always appreciate seeing a review that goes against the grain, to help keep my expectations in check!


  8. Reading initial blurbs for this book, it sounded to me like all three of the stories were pretty dark, depressing takes on female desire and your review leaves me with the same impression. I’m also disappointed to hear that the author didn’t bring more thoughtful analysis to her subjects – I’d want some historical context or statistics or social commentary to give these stories more meaning. And some of the writing you share also seems questionable! I really appreciate your review, because I’ve been intrigued by the number of lists this has shown up on, but I feel more confident giving it a pass now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s exactly it, they were depressing. I guess I thought there’d be a greater message in there despite the darkness of the stories, because sure, people survive sexual trauma or even just unfortunate incidents to still have happy, healthy sex lives. But that wasn’t even examined here, it felt like all of the women were working through issues in unhealthy ways. No historical context (beyond a bit of their childhoods), no statistics and minimal social commentary. I think it’s been named to all these lists because the marketing has portrayed it as something completely different than what it is, which is really disappointing.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. As always, an illuminating review. Doesn’t seem so much an examination and celebration of female desire as a voyeuristic glimpse into dysfunctionality. It sounds interesting in a train-wreck sort of way, though the artistic exploration of compound nouns would drive me crazy in a nonfiction book. And I don’t even want to think about the bad writing you mentioned.

    Sadly, I’ve known versions of these women.

    When I was a junior in high school, one of the teachers was engaged to one of my classmates (the school was majority Mormon, so no one batted an eye back then). Years later, he went to trial over affairs he’d had with other students in exchange for grades (and he was acquited — I knew one of the former students and believed her).

    My brother’s friend’s psyche ended up being destroyed when her abusive husband convinced her to sleep with men while he videotaped.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was incredibly voyeuristic instead of feeling like investigative journalism that actually tells something meaningful. Dysfunctional is exactly the word for it, and none of these women seemed on track to getting help for the underlying issues that were driving them into some unhealthy behavior.

      I’ve known versions of them too (especially the woman who becomes obsessed with the guy she reconnected with, which may be why I disliked that narrative so viscerally. I’ve had to hear it from too many friends who wouldn’t listen to reason or serious concerns, just digging themselves deeper into damaging situations and only reading about her frenzied obsession made me anxious and upset.) The ones you knew sound really tough. I can’t even imagine husbands forcing wives to sleep with other men, just wtf. But when these kind of stories are so common, I would’ve loved to read something that looked at them intelligently and showed what they mean, what’s the social context behind them, etc. There are obviously issues at play here that affect a lot of people, you know?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, my brother’s friend whose husband did that to her, it took her a long time to recover and she basically started abusing alcohol. Eventually, she rebuilt her self-esteem and met a nice guy and married him and they’ve been together for quite some time. A shame the author couldn’t find stories that moved beyond the sensational — sounds like she had enough time.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh wow, I can imagine that was a tough recovery path. I’m glad she managed to get through and rebuild her self-esteem and a healthy relationship — no easy feat. That’s a good point, these were kind of sensational. It would’ve been one thing if she’d intended to write a book about the damage on sex and relationships from certain kinds of traumatic events or something along those lines, but they were just odd choices considering what it was. And so disappointing considering she had such a gift of time!! That really bothered me.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Excellent review. I was unimpressed with this as well and stopped about a third of the way in. It felt unsettling that this should be marketed as a book about all women’s desire when (a) the three leads are all white/straight and (b) the relationships discussed are abusive; that the author herself frames her work in such terms was even more disturbing. 8 years went into writing this book, but so much of it’s simply backstory and narrative – the prose often came across as sensational to me (making a kind of spectacle out of troubling subject matter), and the general lack of social context/research was perplexing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I should’ve done like you did and just given up on it. It was so hyped that I thought something good HAD to be coming out of it, but no. It’s lost on me why so many people have loved it. If it had been reporting on sexuality after trauma or abusive pasts, or related to various types of abusive relationships, that would be one thing. But you can’t say stories about how men control women in various ways are actually about female desire. What exactly did she spend 8 years doing, I had to wonder? These felt like the product of a few hours of interviews each. And presenting it all with zero context, ugh…I can’t really complain about this book enough! But I’m very glad to hear you had a similar take, I read a lot of glowing reviews around its release time and wondered what everyone was seeing in it that I wasn’t.

      Did you see where she said, I think in the NY Times, that she only focused on straight white women because she wanted them to be relatable? Wtf.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I do think the book’s benefitted from an extraordinary marketing campaign: it seems to be everywhere, online and off. That’s really the only reason I can think of why it’s become so popular, the writing’s mediocre and the project is unsettling. Haha it doesn’t seem like she put much time into the research at all, does it? I felt like even the portraits of the women were underdeveloped, but I guess that’s to be expected given the author’s narrow scope on their relationships with abusive men.


  11. Ha! Am in middle of reading this and came here for a sanity check – am I reading the same book as those who blurbed it?? Thank goodness for your review: I am not alone! I am finding those compounds nouns absolutely cringey in the Maggie story and you mention that too. It is hard for me to believe that this book is non-fiction, the writing is uninformed, and I get no sense of any research or point to the telling of these sad stories. A triumph of marketing over reality and the cover (which is beautiful) over content.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh my God this book drove me crazy! I didn’t mention it as much in the review but the lack of outside research, beyond the time with the women, and contextual information was awful and made me not be able to take this very seriously. I have no idea why this thing took off like it did, except that people just enjoyed the salacious experience of it? But it didn’t even feel like “sexy” reading to me, it just made me so sad. I felt hurt for them, or incredibly annoyed in other cases. And like you said, there also felt no POINT to all of it. What was the message I was supposed to take? I loved the prologue about her mother’s experience in Italy, it just seemed so promising after that but didn’t deliver. I agree that it was indeed a triumph of marketing, they pushed this thing like crazy and it worked. Makes me worry about people’s susceptibility.


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