Three Womenby Published 9 Jul 2019
|Publisher||Avid Reader Press / Simon Schuster|
Desire as we’ve never seen it before: a riveting true story about the sex lives of three real American women, based on nearly a decade of reporting.
It thrills us and torments us. It controls our thoughts and destroys our lives. 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.
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
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.
I appreciate how this book tackles the topic of female desire explicitly, given how female sexuality is so often stigmatized in contemporary culture. However, several issues got in the way of me enjoying the book or connecting with it more. As my friend Caroline writes in her astute review, I found aspects of the book gender essentialist, such that Lisa Taddeo would make comments about women’s desires broadly, without really analyzing how those desires may stem from socialization or how they may differ between diverse groups of women (e.g., women of color, queer women, etc.) I don’t think Taddeo or the book’s marketing ever explicitly said that Three Women speaks for all women, and yet, I feel like stating how whiteness and wealth influenced these women’s desires and the parameters around their desire would have strengthened the book. Taddeo addresses this in a sentence or two in the book’s epilogue, which I appreciated while still wanting more.
I also had mixed feelings about the writing style of Three Women. Again, I appreciated how Taddeo wrote about women’s desires in a straightforward, holding-nothing-back kinda way. Yet, something about Taddeo’s writing kept me at a distance from the women in this story, especially Lina and Sloane. While Maggie’s story had more of a narrative arc and I could feel how her teacher manipulated her rising off the page, Lina and Sloane’s narratives dragged and read more as reporting with little emotional accessibility.
Overall an okay book. Perhaps one that could continue the conversation about women’s desires as long as we all recognize the conversation must continue beyond these three women. For a more sociological and searing examination of women’s desires I’d recommend my fav book Appetites by Caroline Knapp.
Audiobook... read by Tara Lynne Barr, Marin Ireland, Mena Suvari, and Lisa Taddeo
I’ve listened to 3 hours so far - of the 11 hours and 24 minutes.
Dave Eggers said:
“I can’t imagine a scenario where this isn’t one of the more important - and breathlessly debated - books of the year”. 🤔
Well... let the debates begin!!! I don’t feel this book is worth the praise it’s getting - at all.
My thoughts so far....
I think very little of it!!
The concept might have been a great idea....
But 8 YEARS of research about women’s sexual desires -resulted in THIS???
Its soooooo boring mixed with sappy flowery prose.
After the prologue... and basic information about Lisa - her mother - and Lisa’s purpose -its been downhill for me.
Maybe??? I’ll climb the hill again - but so far.....it’s a crappy disappointment!!
The sample read on Audiobook was great. It’s from the prologue...
BECAUSE ITS THE BEST PART!
The narrators voice who represents Maggie’s story has such a high pitch voice - she sounds like a child... it doesn’t fit the dialogue.
Honestly... my emotions are high - but not ‘for’ the book...
I’m kinda appalled - its triggered anger in me. I feel manipulated by the writing...( hate that feeling)..
We can intellectualize all we want about the “importance” - ha - of this book... but personally - I think it’s dramatic-dullness is too full of itself.
I’m sorry for being so ‘mean’ ...
I just don’t get the hype - the value - and MOST... I’m not ‘feeling’ anything ...
beyond the prologue.
Lina’s and Sloan’s story is at least read better than Maggie’s story.
Nothing has surprised me -
Nothing has moved me.
I’m going to stay with it, though - see the book to the end. Hoping it improves.
The writing - although skillful - feels pretentious to me.
It wasn't regular, what you did, and now here I am. Look at me. I put this war paint on, but underneath I'm scarred and scared and horny and tired and love you.
I can understand why many readers were disappointed with this book. Luckily for me, it was recommended to me the right way: by a friend who painted it as a juicy and compelling portrait of three women's sex lives. Not as some amazing non-fiction project that contains the secrets of female desire.
If you came for the latter, I think disappointment awaits. Three Women is delicious and gossipy. It has its heartbreaking moments, too, but it is mostly a book full of scandalous thrills that narrates far more than it analyzes. So many of my friends read this expecting Taddeo's eight years of research to culminate in something more eye-opening, more diverse and representative of women as a whole. But the title really says it all: this is a book about THREE women. Nothing more.
It worked well for me, honestly. I knew what I was getting. It reads like a novelization of these women's experiences - in fact, I suspect some parts were embellished for better reading - but I found it very entertaining.
The book follows - you guessed it - three women and their sex lives. Maggie had a relationship with her married teacher in high school and still bears the scars, Lina is having a passionate affair behind her emotionally-detached husband's back, and Sloane has sex with lots of different people because her husband likes to watch. Judge me all you want, but I couldn't look away!
One criticism I read was of how this wasn't a very feminist book because all the women's sex lives were influenced or controlled by men. This is true to some extent, and yet Taddeo didn't seem to portray any of the women's stories as necessarily positive or healthy. Through the women's experiences, Taddeo touches upon how gender inequality punishes women for their desire, whether it is a young girl being taken advantage of by an adult man or a married woman feeling trapped in a passionless relationship.
It is, of course, very limited in its scope, and I find it frustrating that someone saw fit to market this book as some kind of desire manifesto for American women, especially when it's sample - as the title outright admits - is ridiculously tiny. The book itself is very engaging, the three women's stores are interesting, but how anyone could read this and imagine it is representative of most American women, never mind all, is beyond my comprehension.
If you like novels, genre fiction, scandals and being nosy, I recommend it. If you are in search of an in-depth study of desire, I would look elsewhere.
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“If you have a husband who barely touches you. If you have a husband who touches you too much, who grabs your hand and puts it on his penis when you’re trying to read about electric fences for golden retrievers. If you have a husband who plays video games more than he touches your arm. If you have a husband who eats the bun off your plate when you’ve left it but you aren’t one hundred percent done with it. If you don’t have a husband at all. If your husband died. If your wife died. If your wife looks at your penis like a leftover piece of meat loaf she doesn’t want to eat but also refuses to throw out. If your wife miscarried late into her term and isn’t the same person and she turns her back to you, or she turns her emails to someone else. It’s impossible to be with Lina and not think about everything in your own life that is missing, or whatever you think is missing because you don’t feel whole on your own…”
- Lisa Taddeo, Three Women
It is hard to know where to start with Lisa Taddeo’s fascinating, frustrating, and utterly absorbing Three Women.
So, let’s start with her thesis statement.
This project began with Taddeo’s yearning to write “a book about human desire.” Perhaps something along the lines of Thy Neighbor’s Wife, Gay Talese’s classic of the sexual revolution.
As Taddeo explains in a brief forward, however, she soon ran into some obstacles.
First, after talking with three different men, she decided that all male desire “began to bleed together.” This is a rather vague way of writing-off literally half the human population, but no big deal. Male desire (in its infinite variations, I might add) has been covered before. It is entirely legitimate to focus solely on women.
Accordingly, Taddeo readjusted her focus to encompass only female desire. To gather research, she crossed the country six times, putting up fliers and loitering in coffee shops, to find women willing to have a frank (as in open-your-diary frank) discussion. She gives no indication as to what neighborhoods she entered, or what neighborhoods she avoided, or where she put up her fliers, but suffice to say, she did not gather a statistically valid random sample.
Instead, she ran into the second obstacle, to wit: finding willing participants. Taddeo was clearly looking to do a soul-deep dive, to attain a level of detail that is shocking, even in this era of oversharing. It’s a big ask, and it is not surprising that many potential subjects eventually balked and withdrew.
Thus, Taddeo’s original project was whittled down once more. No longer a book about female desire, it transformed into a book about the desires (however that is defined) of three women.
The three women are Maggie, Lina, and Sloane. (Maggie, due to her circumstances, is the only one not afforded a pseudonym).
All three are white. All are straight. This might seem circumscribed, but I can accept it as being in the nature of this kind of book, which relies on a certain kind of willing participant. Obviously, this is a self-selected group, made up of individuals who are – I venture to say – different from most of the rest of us by sheer dint of the fact that they were willing to respond to Taddeo’s initial query, and later willing to see this through to the end. These are unique humans in that they are willing to say aloud, to a writer, things most people hesitate to say to themselves.
Maggie is a sixteen-year old raised by parents who seem to be functioning alcoholics. (It is stated that her family is somehow unstable, but that instability is not defined). Shortly after meeting her, she has sex with a thirty-something soldier while visiting Hawaii. This troubling event is only the beginning, as the bulk of Maggie’s tale is her affair (which includes sexual activity, though not intercourse) with married North Dakota Teacher of the Year Aaron Knodel.
(The trial was highly publicized, hence the use of Maggie’s and Knodel’s real names).
Lina is introduced via a women’s group session at the Kinsey Institute. She is an Indiana housewife married to a postal worker who refuses to kiss her. As in: literally refuses to kiss her ever. Eventually, Lina hooks up with an old high-school flame who provides great sex, though only on his timetable, and only on his terms. Her affair is a doomed and passionate thing.
Finally, there is Sloane, who comes from wealth, lives near the sea, is married to a chef, and owns a restaurant with her husband. She is also a swinger whose husband likes to watch her with other men. She is not sure if she likes this and is not sure if she does not like it. Sloane is the most opaque, the most unknowable. She sleeps with women, for instance, yet she never identifies as bisexual. Of the three, Sloane’s story seems the least vital; I appreciated her chapters mainly as a respite from the visceral, oft-excruciating, oft-heartbreaking Maggie and Lina chapters.
Taddeo’s writing is consistently amazing. Not in the sense that she is a wonderful prose stylist (though at times the prose is wonderful), but in the way that she inhabits each of her three subjects. Each woman has their own distinctive voice, and the narrative unfolds from each of their individual points of view. Taddeo almost becomes more of a conduit than an author. It makes for gripping reading.
Like many talented persons, Taddeo tends to show off, meaning that she occasionally delivers a clunker of a line. For example, while describing Lina’s women’s group, she observes that: “The wine tastes like cold sneezes.” First, ew. Second, what? The things I do not know about female desire can fill the infinite void of outer space. Bad wine, on the other hand, is my expertise. I live on the bottom shelf, with the five-dollar liter-and-a-halfs of chardonnay, and I have never tasted wine that resembles a “wet sneeze.” It’s a description too clever by half.
(I’m sure that Taddeo wants nothing to do with a Norman Mailer comparison, but Mailer did this very thing in The Executioner’s Song. Like Mailer in his opus, she attempts to subsume herself into the lexicon of her characters, speaking through them. Like Mailer, she proves unable to resist delivering a polished phrase or two that could only have come from her).
Three Women is getting a lot of buzz for a lot of reasons. One of the big reasons is the sex. There is a lot of sex here. We’re talking levels of detail that are unprecedented this side of outright erotica. Some of Lina’s scenes, in particular, are step-by-step, which leads one to wonder how Taddeo gained her information. Is she just a great interviewer? Or was she there? (Talese, infamously, inserted – pun intended – himself into many of his sexual misadventures while writing Thy Neighbor’s Wife).
Unfortunately, Taddeo provides maddeningly little information about her methodology, so we are left to wonder. There are no endnotes, footnotes, or explanations with regard to her research. This is a trust me kind of book. As in, you need to trust that the author is being honest. This is fairly easy in the Maggie chapters, since Taddeo could corroborate with trial records, police reports, and the like. In other instances, though, it seems that we are being given single-sourced episodes. There is no indication, for example, that Taddeo spoke, or attempted to speak, with Ed, Lina’s husband, to get his side of the story.
(I will reiterate that I am perfectly content with Taddeo’s decision to avoid the male perspective. God knows that libraries are filled with those perspectives. The result, though, is less than wholly empathetic, and turns the men into one-dimensional bit-characters, rather than people who are alive, right now, who might view the same occurrences quite differently).
I assume you have already guessed what I am about to say next. If not, here it is: prurient interest was one of the motivating factors that led me here. When I am informed that something is graphic, or extreme, or possibly in bad taste, I make sure I get to the front of the line to see it. (This is the reason, and the only reason, I have viewed the films of Lars von Trier). I simply cannot resist. But if you are looking for titillation – something to read round the pool with a glass of sun-gold iced chardonnay, hoping for a bit of an edge to your wine-buzz – you will be disappointed. Three Women is far from cheaply exploitative as we are from the former-planet named Pluto. It is, at times, immensely sad, even a bit grim. There is sexual assault, substance abuse, suicide, depression. There are aching holes of undefined need that cannot be explained, much less filled. Of the three women, only Lina expresses any positivity towards sex-for-pleasure. Even she is searching for something, something that goes beyond the physical grapple-and-release.
Besides the raw depictions of sexuality, Three Women is sure to engender a bit of controversy. I am speaking, in particular, of the Maggie conundrum. As mentioned above, Taddeo disappears behind the eyes of each of her subjects. This creates a scenario in which there is no overarching authorial voice to nudge us toward an answer or to define a moral boundary. A positive result is that there are no judgments (and Taddeo makes clear that she disapproves the way women judge other women).
The downside is that Maggie’s entire arc is devoted to her being statutorily raped by older men. This discomfiting reality is wholly ignored, aside from a fleeting sentence or two in the epilogue.
While I was reading this, I noticed an item trending on social media, cluttering my Facebook and Twitter feeds. The item was a simple phrase, stating that: “An underage woman is a girl.” The point, obviously enough, was to criticize the mainstream media for its coverage of sexual assault of minors.
This internet flare-up proved an interesting counterpoint to Three Women, where wholly one-third of the space is taken up with an asymmetrical, coercive relationship between an older man in authority and a teenage girl without any leverage, which is shown as entirely consensual. More than that, Taddeo’s presentation essentially concludes that Maggie only went to the police after she was jilted and overtaken by bitterness that her “ex” had moved on with his life. The result is an uncomfortable collision between feminism and the #MeToo movement that is, unfortunately, never explored.
(In fairness to Taddeo, raising issues without providing guidance is a pedagogically astute way of starting conversations).
As I said at the top: it is hard to know what to say about Three Women. It is also hard to stop talking about it, as this two-thousand-word ramble attests.
Certainly, it has stuck in my memory far longer than anything else I’ve read in a long time. The paths of Lina and Maggie in particular would support their very own, very different, very powerful books. Taddeo’s act of possession, of speaking as another, and her decision to be a scribe rather than a judge, leaves a lot of lingering questions and discussion points, assuring this title a spot in book clubs for decades to come.
Ultimately, I don’t think Taddeo proves any universal truth about desire, female or otherwise. Mostly, she got me to care very intensely about people I’ve never met, who I wouldn’t recognize if I saw them crossing the street, and who I devoutly hope will be okay. It is, above all else, a singular work of intimacy and compassion.