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.
by Lisa Taddeo
published July 9, 2019