Book review | Lisa Taddeo’s 'Three Women': A searing study on sex and shame
Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women is non-fiction that takes a long, hard look at naked desire by inhabiting the bodies and souls of three white, mostly straight and relatively privileged American women: Maggie, who is unable to get over the forbidden affair she had with her teacher in her teens; Lina, who is a mother of two, separated from her husband and sleeping with a married ex; and beautiful Sloane, whose husband likes to watch her have sex with partners of his choosing.
The author mentions at the onset that while there are many sides to all stories, she has chosen to focus only on these three women. She claims to have spent thousands of hours with them, even moving to their respective towns to ‘better understand their day-to-day lives’ and she does succeed in taking the reader into the intimate recesses of their minds laying bare secrets and dark desires with a voyeuristic drive that is softened by compassion and a lack of judgement. Yet the book feels incomplete without even a modicum of effort to understand the motivations of the men in these women’s lives or details pertaining to the wives and families who have been affected by the ill-considered actions of the trio.
Taddeo’s depiction of the men as predatory, weak, and selfish makes sense from the point of view of her chosen subjects but leaves the reader marginally doubtful because they seem more like caricatures made with clumsy brush strokes of thwarted feminine need.
Lina’s husband is a particularly vexing non-character. All his wife wants from him is a deep French kiss but he recoils from the request and his idea of foreplay is to tap her on the arm and ask if she feels like ‘doin it’. One wonders why exactly he got into a marriage where he wants to have nothing at all to do with his wife outside of providing her with a nice house and kids. Lina hooks up with Aidan who had broken things off with her when she acquired a reputation as the girl in high school who slept with three guys in one night though in reality she had been sexually assaulted. Flavour and savour is restored to her life when her sexual needs are met but her willingness to debase herself in exchange for torrid trysts made at Aidan’s convenience characterised by little emotional investment does not augur well for her.
Taddeo is brutally honest about the desperation which drives Lina and one wonders if the point is a deeply pessimistic one about women who leave the safety of convention to pursue their desires.
Sloane’s story is somewhat bewildering. There are times she likes having multiple sexual partners but her arc is deeply problematic because her husband chooses the men and women she has sex with and insists on being present or inserting himself into the scenario via phone or video feeds. She confesses that she doesn’t always like the partners she pleasures and it seems clear that her desires have got lost somewhere in her husband’s needs. It doesn’t help that Sloane’s passions seem rooted in past hurt and an incestuous request. So when she claims she ‘wants her husband above all else’, one can’t help but wonder if she is kidding herself.
Maggie’s story is the most affecting because she is so clearly a victim despite being so complicit in her own victimhood. Taddeo doesn’t whitewash her issues but her oppressor is a predator and it sticks in the craw that he gets away scot-free while she is all but destroyed.
Three Women is troubling and the writer’s quest for literary brilliance and use of bewildering metaphors like ‘avuncular oysters’ and ‘cool sneezes’ is distracting but it is still worth a read because when it comes to women and desire, it is best to make room on the table for discussion and dissection.