Book Review: Three Women by Lisa Taddeo
What’s the premise?
“When my mother was a young woman a man used to follow her to work every morning and masturbate, in step behind her.” So begins the debut book by Boston-based Lisa Taddeo, a contributor for New York magazine, Esquire, Elle and Glamour. Her non-fiction works have been included in the Best American Sports Writing and Best American Political Writing anthologies, and her short stories have won two Pushcart Prizes. Based on the acclaim Three Women has already garnered since it was published earlier this month, we’re convinced this exploration of female desire is set to scoop the top spot on many of 2019’s end-of-year lists.
The book begins with a personal essay by Taddeo detailing how her Italian mother became an object of desire at a young age. We learn of the silent acquiescence she undertook to deal with the unwanted attention from men she received throughout her life, including both her own husband and the older man who followed her every day. The chapter goes some way to explain why Taddeo has chosen female longing as the basis of this powerful piece of non-fiction. For beyond chapter one, Three Women is a riveting true story about the sex lives of three real American women, based on nearly a decade of reporting by Taddeo. The result is a deep portrait of desire, and one which will leave you questioning the status quo by the end of the book.
Who are the ‘three women’?
Taddeo first introduces us to suburban Indiana, where we meet Lina, a homemaker and mother of two whose decade-long marriage has lost its spark. She spends her days cooking and cleaning for her husband, who refuses to kiss her on the mouth, let alone satisfy her sexual desires. Even her marriage counsellor says her husband’s position is valid. Starved for affection, Lina battles daily panic attacks. So when she reconnects with her high-school sweetheart, Aiden, via Facebook, she embarks on an affair that quickly becomes all-consuming – despite the fact he abandoned her when they were 15 after she was raped by multiple men at a party.
In North Dakota we meet Maggie, a 17-year-old high school student who finds a friend in her handsome, married English teacher. Over a period of time, his nightly texts and phone calls evolve into a physical relationship, with plans to skip school on her 18th birthday, when she’s legal. Instead, he breaks up with her on the morning he turns 30. A few years later, Maggie has no degree or career, and lives in mourning for the relationship that could have been. So when she learns that Mr Knodel has been named North Dakota’s ‘Teacher of the Year’, she comes forward with her story – only to be branded a liar by her ex-lover, former school friends and the jury that hears her case.
Finally, in exclusive Rhode Island, we meet Sloane – a beautiful and successful restaurateur – who is happily married to a man who likes to watch her have sex with other men and women. He picks out partners for her or for a threesome, and she ensures that everyone’s needs are satisfied but her own. One day, they invite a colleague to join them, but he brings a secret with him that will finally force Sloane to confront the uneven power dynamic that fuels their lifestyle – and set the rumour mill into overdrive throughout their community.
Will I like it?
If you’re anything like Gillian Anderson, who called it “intense and riveting”, the answer is probably yes. “These women broke my heart and I won’t forget them”, she has said of the book. This element of permanency rings true for us. Although we tore through the book – the chapters switch between the trio of tales, making you desperate to learn more – once we reached the final page, we went online immediately to learn more about Maggie’s case. Even beyond these pages her story continues to raise questions about whom we choose to believe based on age, sex and motive. You’ll never think of the Twilight franchise the same way again.
It’s not just the stories themselves that stick, although given that Taddeo interviewed hundreds of people to find her subjects, it comes as no surprise that the details pull you in. It’s the way that Three Women reads like fiction that grips you by the throat. By spending time with Lina, Maggie and Sloane over eight years and intertwining her life into theirs, Taddeo really gets beneath the skin of each, and every chapter reads like a first-person account. She’s got a way with words too: when Lina visualises punching her husband, she imagines “In place of his sleeping head would be a Stonehenge of pink bone.” And when Maggie files her initial police report “The past yawns at her, stretching itself, like a cat.” The poetic nature of her words pulls you into the sense of longing – however misguided – before you’re jolted into courtroom proceedings or an empty motel bedroom, a stark reminder that this is all real.
Finally, it’ll make you furious – at the US justice system, at enduring male dominance and at women who punish other women. Unlike the cast that surrounds each of the three protagonists – be they jury members, colleagues, parents, friends or partners – Taddeo doesn’t judge them for the decisions they make prior to or during her intense study of their lives. She just listens. By laying bare the peril and inner torment women face when they are not believed, acknowledged or accommodated, Three Women is a rallying cry that we should all be less critical of others.
SL Chats With Lisa Taddeo
What prompted you to write the book?
I’d read Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbour’s Wife and was impressed with the immersive nature of the book, but it was written from a very male perspective, so I decided it might make sense to write about female desire from a female perspective. During my research, I switched from men’s to women’s desire, as the men’s stories began to feel much the same to one another. This is not to generalise. But female desire was so much more complex, at least in the cases of the hundreds of people to whom I spoke.
How did you find your ‘three women’?
I was in Medora, North Dakota, checking out a lead about a group of women who were working as waitresses by day and then, at night, being trucked into the local oil fields to have sex with the men who worked there and lived in trailers. In a coffee shop, I read about Maggie’s trial. I called her mother’s house and introduced myself, and the next day I was driving to Fargo.
I found Lina after moving to Indiana, somewhat to be close to the Kinsey Institute (a research institute on human sexuality and relationships) but also to get out of New York, where I felt I was too much inside my own world. In Indiana, I started a women’s discussion group, of which Lina was a part. She was right in the middle of wanting to leave her husband and embarking on this all-consuming affair with her high school boyfriend.
With the third woman, Sloane, I had already been talking to several other people who lived in her community and had fascinating stories. I began by speaking to those other people first but then I heard about her through the grapevine. Gossip, mostly.
How did you inject so much detail – and create a unique voice for each woman – while dealing with non-fiction?
I would ask the same question a hundred times, from multiple angles. I would also watch and listen and read items about them, pay attention to the way they interacted on social media. I would also often be taking in the environment while not being a part of the action. For example, after Lina was intimate with Aidan in their sacred spot, I would travel there right after, to take in the smells and sounds and sights of the river at dusk, so I could best describe the milieu and could best layer onto what Lina had just told me.
Did you come away from your research with any universal takeaways?
One lofty hope for this book is that it will inspire at least a few people to stop judging their neighbour and inspire others to tell their own stories. And in an even broader sense, to not let people go through their lives unseen and unheard. Even if you have stopped loving someone in the world, it’s cruel to not say: “I see you. I know you exist.” And I saw the way that we project our own shame onto others, and then revile them for it.
Three Women is available to buy now.
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