Three Womenby Published 09 Jul 2019
|Publisher||Avid Reader Press / Simon Schuster|
It thrills us and torments us. It controls our thoughts, destroys our lives, and it’s all we live for. Yet we almost never speak of it. And as a buried force in our lives, desire remains largely unexplored—until now. Over the past eight years, journalist Lisa Taddeo has driven across the country six times to embed herself with ordinary women from different regions and backgrounds. The result, Three Women, is the deepest nonfiction portrait of desire ever written and one of the most anticipated books of the year.
We begin in suburban Indiana with Lina, a homemaker and mother of two whose marriage, after a decade, has lost its passion. She passes her days cooking and cleaning for a man who refuses to kiss her on the mouth, protesting that “the sensation offends” him. To Lina’s horror, even her marriage counselor says her husband’s position is valid. Starved for affection, Lina battles daily panic attacks. When she reconnects with an old flame through social media, she embarks on an affair that quickly becomes all-consuming.
In North Dakota we meet Maggie, a seventeen-year-old high school student who finds a confidant in her handsome, married English teacher. By Maggie’s account, supportive nightly texts and phone calls evolve into a clandestine physical relationship, with plans to skip school on her eighteenth birthday and make love all day; instead, he breaks up with her on the morning he turns thirty. A few years later, Maggie has no degree, no career, and no dreams to live for. When she learns that this man has been named North Dakota’s Teacher of the Year, she steps forward with her story—and is met with disbelief by former schoolmates and the jury that hears her case. The trial will turn their quiet community upside down.
Finally, in an exclusive enclave of the Northeast, we meet Sloane—a gorgeous, successful, and refined restaurant owner—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 alone or for a threesome, and she ensures that everyone’s needs are satisfied. For years, Sloane has been asking herself where her husband’s desire ends and hers begins. One day, they invite a new man into their bed—but he brings a secret with him that will finally force Sloane to confront the uneven power dynamics that fuel their lifestyle.
Based on years of immersive reporting, and told with astonishing frankness and immediacy, Three Women is a groundbreaking portrait of erotic longing in today’s America, exposing the fragility, complexity, and inequality of female desire with unprecedented depth and emotional power. It is both a feat of journalism and a triumph of storytelling, brimming with nuance and empathy, that introduces us to three unforgettable women—and one remarkable writer—whose experiences remind us that we are not alone.
Three Women Reviews
Three Women follows - somewhat unsurprisingly - three women in contemporary America: Maggie had a relationship with her teacher when at school and is now at the trial to see whether he will be convicted, Lina is in an unhappy marriage and turns back to the one man in her life who ever satisfied her sexually, Sloane lives to fulfil the sexual whims of her husband who likes to watch her sleep with other men. The reader gets to know these women over the course of the book, which I took to be anything between several months and a few years, I don't believe it was ever explicitly stated. Taddeo lays bare the innermost thoughts and desires of these women, mostly in the context of their sexual relationships - what makes the book so compelling and unique is that Taddeo does this in such a non-judgemental and revealing way, so much so that this reads like gripping fiction when in fact it is entirely non-fiction about these real womens' lives.
The stories of these women and how they approach and deal with their relationships and the men in their lives revealed things to me about myself and how I act in relationships with men I have dated which I had never before considered. Even if your experiences have differed to these women you will almost certainly find something to relate to here, and even possibly learn something about yourself.
Thank you Netgalley and Bloomsbury Publishing Plc (UK & ANZ) for the advance copy, which was provided in exchange for an honest review.
If you read narrative non-fiction you simply have to read this. You’re going to want to put down whatever you’re reading and get this instead. Lina, Maggie and Sloane and all their desires, obsessions, contradictions, hopes and disappointments are rendered with such compassion and dignity. The achievements of this book will floor you. To Lina, Maggie and Sloane, I see you, I understand you, I believe you. To Lisa Taddeo, I am in awe of you.
This is quite a perplexing book as I'm not sure what Taddeo's intentions were. She takes three American women and tells their stories of failed love, disappointing marriages, unmet or unfulfilled sexual and emotional needs.
In some ways the stories are different and, almost deliberately (?) echo themes covered in recent fiction: Lina, in a sexless marriage, falls into an affair with her high-school boyfriend; Maggie is 'groomed' into a sexual relationship with her high-school teacher; Sloane finds herself introduced to open marriage built around a ménage theme, and recognises herself as a submissive after reading 'Fifty Shades of Grey'.
And yet, all three have commonalities: all three women are essentially unfulfilled; all are, to greater or lesser extents, exploited by men. Lina and Maggie are desperately pleading for love from married men who call them up when they choose. Sloane has a troubled history of anorexia/bulimia and despite her seeming assurance, traces early examples of male familial disapproval which affected her adolescence.
What I found disturbing about the book is a seeming gender essentialism which shows us abject women in thrall to powerful men who control their relationships whether through being unavailable emotionally and physically, sometimes because they're married, or, in the case of Sloane, by a voyeurism which makes her the sexualised object beneath a dual male gaze. The overall tone is one of dysfunctional masochism, especially in the cases of Lina and Maggie.
It's fascinating to see other women's inner lives but it's also frustrating to see how much pain, misery and lack of agency inhabit these (love) lives. The implication seems to be that whatever happens to level the playing field for women publicly and professionally, there's still an underground struggle for some women who want to be loved in ways that their men and their own choices seem to preclude.
Thanks to Bloomsbury for an ARC via NetGalley.
Reviewed for The Washington Post, to be published July 9, 2019.
Oof. This BOOK. Three women; eight years; their love and sex and desires meticulously recorded, celebrated, foregrounded. It is, almost unbelievably, nonfiction that – in the very truest sense – reads like a novel; Lisa Taddeo gives her subjects the care and complete focus that we often only give to the people we’ve made up.
The three women she chooses are Maggie, who has an affair with her high school English teacher at fifteen, and at twenty-three decides to seek justice; Lina, who marries the first man who asks, then suffers in the desert of being unkissed and untouched for months on end; and Sloane, who’s thin and hot and rich but whose husband is most turned on by watching her have sex with people he’s chosen for her. They couldn’t possibly be more different, and yet Taddeo seems able to slide into each of their brains with ease. (She is scrupulous, in her prologue, about her sources: she uses text records, phone logs, and court documents where she can, but in situations like Maggie’s–her teacher demanded that she delete every text message sent to, or received from, him–she has had to work with her subject to reconstruct the dynamic from memory.)
The most interesting element of Three Women, for me, is Taddeo’s ability not just to trace the events of eight years or so, but to show how every choice each woman makes, every twinge of desire or dread that she feels, is rooted in experiences from years or decades previously. Maggie’s early years–both her parents alcoholics, their marriage essentially loving but under a good deal of strain–make her intensely vulnerable to the isolation and grooming that Aaron Knodel perpetrates upon her. Sloane’s relationship with her mother, Dyan, a woman who herself was starved of familial love after a car that she was driving killed her own mother, is a kaleidoscope of inherited trauma. Lina’s parents’ apparent inability to take anything she says seriously drives her to cover up her own gang rape (by three friends of her older brother) in high school, then to an increasingly desperate need to have her longings acknowledged as an adult. Their choices are the sums of their lives, but so are their needs, their predilections, their compromises.
You’re likely, I’ll warn you, to come away from this book with the strong conviction that men are worthless toads. None of the featured men treat women well. Aaron Knodel is a weasely paedophile; Lina’s husband Ed is a vague and distant human-shaped meatsack; Aidan Hart–a high school sweetheart with whom she initiates an affair–sees her as an option but never a priority; Sloane’s husband Richard evades all the responsibility for any heartache that their sexual life–based entirely upon what arouses him–causes other couples.
But the point that Taddeo makes, implicitly but with every sentence, is that men aren’t the fulcrum of this book’s interest. It’s called, after all, Three Women. The sheer level of focus and attention, of serious consideration, given to the fantasies and realities of her subjects is almost unprecedented. Lina’s goofy texts to her lover made me cringe with their profound lack of sexiness, but Taddeo never cringes. Maggie’s experiences at Knodel’s trial made me flinch, but Taddeo never flinches. Nor does the book judge Sloane. Such care: is that what we mean by grace?
Three Women is out on 9 July, from Bloomsbury. Man or woman or neither or in-between, you should read it asap.
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