Lisa Taddeo’s debut Three Women is an eight-year study of a subject that was thought not to exist in any meaningful sense for most of human civilisation. Historically, the sexual desire of women was considered a delusion, a symptom, or an expression of evil. For centuries, women were not thought of as fully human: the male body was painstakingly represented in medical depictions, and the female hastily filled in as an arcane doodle, a reproductive system sheltered by a prehistoric skeleton and a tiny, empty skull. Men’s desire was always natural, because its end-point created life. Women were always purely functional vessels, whose pleasure was irrelevant at best and criminal at worst.
This book is a majestic assertion of the existence of women’s desire, and a thoughtful exploration of its complicated role in the individual and in society. Though I found it depressing in many ways, its very presence – the fact a book like this could be written and published – is profound and hopeful. It’s a flawed, messy work of art, and of inventive journalism. Its style is conversational and compulsively readable, but occasionally veers into overly florid, distracting language. Wine tastes like “cool sneezes”, and the intense feelings of a teenage girl are dubbed “lovecrush” repeatedly, a contraction whose cutesiness made me wince. But because of how compelling the stories are, how human and magnificent, despite their misery, I forgave this eagerly.
Taddeo, an award-winning American journalist and fiction writer, invested an enormous amount of her life in telling them. In her own words:
Over the course of eight years, I have spent thousands of hours with the women in this book – in person, on the phone, by text message and email. I moved to the towns where they lived and settled in as a resident so I could better understand their day-to-day lives.
The three women are Maggie, Lina and Sloane. Maggie is a young adult in bleak West Fargo, North Dakota, bearing the dreadful consequences of going public about a teenage affair with her high school teacher. As the one identifiable woman in the book (by way of a public court case that is written about in her chapters), Maggie is the only one of the three whose surroundings feel fully realised and whose location is specified. The other two, though just as vivid as people, live in vaguer settings. Lina is a neglected housewife with a life of prosaic unhappiness, whose unrealised passion finally finds an outlet when an old flame reappears. Sloane is a glamorous restaurateur whose chef husband enjoys watching her have sex with other people. Each has encountered desire in an unremarkable but life-shattering way. Their narratives are visited in alternating chapters, with just a little first-person context in the prologue and epilogue.
It is quietly thrilling to read certain parts about being a girl and woman in love or in lust, things that are so fundamentally familiar to my own experience but which I have never read articulated quite so plainly. When Lina is a not particularly lovely, lonely teenage girl who has never been kissed, she waits for her first boyfriend with a devout fervour: “… she knows if she ever got it she wouldn’t ever take it for granted because every day she would wake up and say, Holy shit, I have a boyfriend”. The thing you desire and do not have, but which others have and treat without care, becomes a focus of obsession.
In later life, Lina is in a sexless marriage, and made to feel like a freak for needing to be touched and kissed. When she begins an affair with the brusque, stupid, but viscerally sexual Aidan, she is electrified by the sheer physical fulfilment of feeling him ejaculate inside her. She is mad for him, desperate to be touched and bent over and needed.
When she admits her affair to a group of women acquaintances they sit in gloating judgement of her depravity, one of many reminders in the book that women are just as good at policing women as men are. Another comes when Maggie, a young woman weathered by misfortune, publicly accuses her former teacher of conducting a relationship with her when she was a teenager. Her small-town community ostracises her, especially young women and other girls who had been taught by this man.
They throw drinks at Maggie and wave placards calling her a liar. They say she is too ugly to rape. The man denied the relationship. He denied that he had brought Maggie to his house and performed oral sex on her when his wife was out of town, even though Maggie was able to describe accurately the interior layout of the house. He wasn’t able to explain the hours-long phone calls on record to her, or the dreamy, fond notes he had written in the margins of her copy of Twilight, comparing their coupling to that of the fated vampires in love.
All of the women are degraded somehow by their desire. For Sloane, her sexual experiments with her husband, which had once felt so sophisticated and carefree, become another burden, another way she is controlled and controlling. The high-stakes perfectionism she applies to everything from her business to her clothing to her sex life begins to crumble and reveal the bottomless pain and need beneath it.
She perceives other women in strictly hierarchical terms, clocking a new waitress in her restaurant in relation to herself; “Sloane, who was known for being both thin and sexy, immediately, there in the kitchen, began to list the ways she was better than Karin, and the ways in which Karin was better than her. Sloane was thinner. Karin was younger.” This seems especially sad because one of the rare instances of a woman experiencing unfettered and shameless pleasure had been Sloane being sexual with other women, when it had just been for the two of them – before it became something to perform for her husband.
In a way this is a very simple book, as suggested by the title, but its simplicity is what makes it so important. To spend years on these ordinary stories, as Taddeo has done, is an act of generosity and faith. It’s what storytelling is for, why we need it: to lend grace to parts of life that are easily diminished, to grant value to experiences that are shameful and humiliating. This is an unusual, startling and gripping debut. It feels to me like the kind of bold, timely, once-in-a-generation book that every house should have a copy of, and probably will before too long.
Bloomsbury Circus, 320pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 19 Jun 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Bad news