Weekend Herald - Canvas
VITAL TRUTHS ABOUT WOMEN AND DESIRE
A study of three American women’s sex lives feels like Mills & Boon crossed with true crime, says Lucy Scholes
THREE WOMEN by Lisa Taddeo (Bloomsbury, $35)
Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women is a daring, absorbing but often frustrating work of narrative non-fiction that details the sex lives and desires of three American women.
There’s Maggie, a young woman in North Dakota who, when she was 16, had a secret relationship with her married teacher, a man who groomed her then dumped her. Six years later, she reports him for the corruption of a minor, only to find herself branded a “whore”. Lina, an unhappy housewife and mother in Indiana, feels sexually rejected by her husband, so she leaves him and embarks on an affair with her ex-high school sweetheart, a man she’s desperately, wildly in love with but who is “terrible to her
[ ... ] he almost never considers her heart”. Finally there’s Sloane, a successful but reserved restaurateur in Rhode Island, whose husband likes to watch her have sex with other men.
Taddeo spent an awe-inspiring eight years researching her material; that’s thousands of hours in the company of these women, “in person, on the phone, by text message and email”. She even moved to the towns where two of them lived, to “better understand their day-today lives”. Yet the grand declaration she makes for her project — “I am confident,” she writes, “that these stories convey vital truths about women and desire” — struck me as problematic.
There are truths here — albeit pretty depressing ones, about the often lopsided sexual power dynamics between men and women — but lingering in the margins, unseen and omitted, are the myriad stories that present a different model of desire. For a start, her three subjects are all white, under 40, and predominantly straight (Sloane occasionally sleeps with women but the third party she and her husband invite into their bedroom is usually a man). Maggie and Lina are also both Catholic, which suggests a particularly fraught relationship with extramarital sex.
To claim, as Taddeo does, that one criterion in selecting these women was “the relatability of their stories”, thus seems grossly myopic. What quickly emerges is that Taddeo is interested in a particular type of woman: one whose outward compliance belies unseen churning tumult within. Women, that is, like her own mother, someone she long thought of as not having any desires of her own: “That her sexuality was merely a trail in the woods, the unmarked kind that is made by boots trampling tall grass. And the boots belonged to my father.”
Thus, when he dies and her mother asks her daughter for help tracing another man on the internet — “A man I knew before your father” — Taddeo is shattered. “I told her she could try to figure the computer out herself,” she admits, “but before she could, she got sick.” The effort Taddeo expends in recording Maggie, Lina and Sloane’s stories becomes something of a personal act of restitution. She listens now because she refused to listen then: “I set out to register the heat and sting of female want so that men and other women might more easily comprehend before they condemn.”
Just to be clear, I’m not condemning these women’s desires but I did find myself confused by them. Their lack of agency is distressing; each of their stories is really one of trauma. It made my skin crawl a little to read Sloane describe herself feeling “powerful” when she realises that her sexual energy is “somehow usable” in her father’s business world. Maggie’s story, meanwhile, is one of insult piled upon injury, a life of “things you do so that the married teacher you’re having an affair with doesn’t get spooked and remains turned on and into you”. Lina’s attitude in particular is positively archaic. She thinks girls who claim to want a successful career more than they want to fall in love are lying — which perhaps makes sense from a married mother of two who longs for nothing more than to spend hours deep french kissing, “the fairy tale kink”, we’re told.
This fits; Taddeo positions these women in what she sees as a long chronicle of sexual and romantic abjection. “Throughout history, men have broken women’s hearts in a particular way,” she writes in the prologue. “Meanwhile, women wait.” Prince Charming, it seems, is their only hope. There’s no sense of sisters doing it for themselves, barely a whisper even of female solidarity. Other girls can’t protect you, thinks Maggie: “They will leave you the moment a man they like pulls them up, anoints them, and alchemises them into princesses who don’t have to deal with the rabble outside the castle walls.”
That the only two significant cultural touchstones referenced in the book are Twilight and its raunchy rip-off, Fifty Shades of Grey, says it all. Sloane credits the latter with having “normalised her lifestyle. Romanticised it, even,” while Maggie’s lover annotates her beloved copy of the former: “imagine a girl, who has idealised a fairytale love story, reading notes effectively saying, Yes, yes, I am your vampire lover and you are my forbidden fruit. We are your favourite love story. For the rest of your life, nothing will taste like this. Can you imagine.”
There’s no doubt that Taddeo’s book conveys “vital truths” about these particular three women and their desires — I’ve never read a work of nonfiction that so candidly and completely accesses the inner sanctums of its subjects’ private lives — but I’m not sure its truths are universal. Maggie’s story, for example, which, Taddeo does point out in the prologue, “poses for the reader the all-too-familiar question of when and why and by whom women’s stories are believed — and when and why and by whom they are not”, could be a gateway to a broader discussion about sexual politics but Taddeo doesn’t pursue this beyond the obvious: “There are men and there are women and one still rules the other in certain pockets of the country, in moments that are not televised. Even when women fight back, they must do so correctly. They must cry the right amount and look pretty but not hot.”
Yet despite my misgivings, I must confess that I found this book almost impossibly compelling. The psychological realism with which Taddeo brings these women to life on the page is uncanny. It feels more like an act of literary seance than reportage. Her subjects remain “in charge” of their own stories, she asserts, as if she’s channelling their psyches.
Three Women is a sort of real-world Mills & Boon novel told with the gravitas and momentum of the grittiest, most gripping true crime story. It shouldn’t work, and on certain levels it doesn’t, yet all the same, it’s the book no one I know can put down, and the one everyone is talking about.