Taddeo hasn’t just caught a moment, she has spawned a new genre. Three Women takes the sort of forensic, no-detail-spared reporting we associate with highbrow American journalism, and the sex obsessions of those priapic bards of 20th-century America literature, Philip Roth, John Updike, Saul Bellow et al, and applies it to a subject that, until now, society has deemed beneath consideration: female desire. It’s the romantic equivalent of true crime. True romance.
There are few fresh revelations here. That men like Mr Knodel exploit (and fetishize) the vulnerability of schoolgirls is not news. If we really hope to license women to expand their sexual repertoires, we might do better to depict less familiar kinds of sex, or even less typical forms of victimization. The term “female desire” is meaningless precisely because there are as many desires as there are women. The relatively homogeneous sample presented in Three Women speaks for only a few.
Three Women shines a spotlight on the sex lives of its subjects, but falls short of illuminating ‘what we are’ in this vital area of our lives. The most interesting thing about this hotly anticipated debut may well be the attention it is attracting. Having earned the author a seven-figure, three-book deal and topped summer reading lists, one hopes its publication heralds more penetrating explorations of Eros to come. Although undeniably admirable in ambition, its execution leaves something to be desired.
Three Women handles its subject with far more sympathy and insight than we would get in a commercial misery memoir, but it is not entirely free of some of the unattractive traits associated with that genre: the very nature of the book presupposes a degree of prurience and condescension. Alternatively, perhaps fastidiousness itself is the problem. Perhaps the hitherto existing system of rules governing matters of privacy and propriety prevents us from talking about these things in a manner that is both sufficiently incisive to say what needs to be said, and sufficiently generous to meet the standards of good taste and decency. If so, then Three Women’s flaws – its conceptual messiness, its extractive voyeurism, and its very slight whiff of overbearing, wise-after-the-event didacticism – are also its most important features.
Certainly, access was key. Some candidates, she writes, stopped, worried about exposure. Yet Taddeo writes that she is “confident that these stories convey vital truths about women and desire”. But how does she know? I wanted to know more about her selection, how representative the three (all white, two Catholic) are and whose stories she also heard and rejected. Taddeo reflects that “it’s the nuances of desire that hold the truth of who we are at our rawest moments. 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.” That is her greatest achievement.
Taddeo is an able and versatile storyteller and modulates her style for each woman’s story, becoming John Updike for Sloane, Judy Blume for Maggie and one of those saucy, real-life women’s magazines for Lina. And why not? Couples, Forever and Take a Breakis a pretty accurate description of most women’s internal monologue, which is why this book is such a compelling read and will have millions of us nodding in recognition at its bittersweet content. After all, who hasn’t fancied the wrong person, wished we were a different size or wanted to take a gamble on a more exciting life?..Taddeo’s account of their romantic shenanigans is more Jilly Cooper than Truman Capote — comparisons to In Cold Blood are decidedly far-fetched — yet this is the kind of book you can devour in one sitting, desperate to find out who ends up with whom in the back seat of whose car. And, crucially, why.
Taddeo has a strong sense of storytelling, setting hooks in each woman’s early chapters before circling back and unfolding their narratives with greater depth. Her short, punchy sentences, eye for telling details, and the wellsprings of conveyed emotion make for a charged, heady read. But such depth perhaps prohibits a greater breadth of stories told. The three central women are white, mostly heterosexual (while Sloane occasionally sleeps with women, she doesn’t explicitly identify as bisexual), and younger than 40 when Taddeo meets them, a view that appears especially limited when one considers the wide net the author cast in looking for her subjects....Three Women is therefore best when taken as a very close study of a few particular individuals, as opposed to a broader treatise on female desire and sexuality. Today, women talking about sex is less transgressive than the marketing and press surrounding the book might suggest, and treating it as such gives more power to an outdated way of thinking—that sexuality, and female sexuality in particular, is rigid and shameful, which Taddeo seems to be trying to refute.
Three Women turns #MeToo inside out, showing us its ugly seams and exposing unfortunate truths – most notably that women are not a unified bloc. Put simply, women don’t always believe other women. One particular observation underwrites all three narratives: ‘And the truth, Maggie knows, is that other girls can’t protect you. They will leave you the moment a man they like pulls them up, anoints them, and alchemizes them into princesses who don’t have to deal with the rabble outside the castle walls.’ Maybe we haven’t come as far as we thought we had.
At times there are biblical resonances to the prose. This seems entirely appropriate in work that is intended to capture the primal, scorching, life-changing power of sexual desire amid the banality of our daily lives. It doesn’t just aim. It succeeds. Three Women is an astonishing act of imaginative empathy and a gift to women around the world who feel their desires are ignored and their voices aren’t heard. This is a book that blazes, glitters and cuts to the heart of who we are. I’m not sure that a book can do much more.
“Three Women” arrives on gusts of fulsome blurbs and comparisons, by its publisher, to the works of J. Anthony Lukas, Katherine Boo and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, giants of narrative journalism. It’s a pity. To unfairly and unnecessarily elevate this book gives it so far to fall. What we have instead is something much more modest — an immersive look at a particular story of female sexuality, albeit refracted three ways. It’s florid and sometimes inexcusably clumsy but also bracing, bleak and full of nagging questions about why it remains so difficult for some women to access their secret lives, to name — let alone pursue — their desires... The boldness in “Three Women” — and its missteps — are both born of the risks Taddeo takes; she is a writer who knows “there’s nothing safer than wanting nothing.”
Taddeo spent many hours with her subjects to better recount their family histories, sexual histories, motivations and insecurities. The result is three detailed stories, without a clear sense of why she chose these women, and why right now. This book does not reveal a secret history, or even describe a contemporary sexual dynamic with such specificity that one cringes in pained recognition (as happened with Kristen Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person”). Three Women simply confirms, once again, the hypocrisies of the heterosexual marriage, the psychological scars that sexual coercion and violence can leave on a person, and the persistence of gender inequality.
This is one of the most exciting debuts I’ve read in years; the writing is muscular and addictive. Taddeo embedded herself in the lives of three ordinary women to write this immersive account of their erotic lives and longings. It’s a powerful record of ebbing disappointments, unspoken feelings and the endless complexity of female desire.
Take three women (Lina, Sloane and Maggie) with three very different sex lives, one meticulous journalist, and eight years of research, and you get Three Women: Taddeo's addictive, intricate study of modern relationships.
All Lina ever wanted was to be desired. How did she end up in a marriage with two children and a husband who wouldn't touch her? All Maggie wanted was to be understood. How did she end up in a relationship with her teacher, and then a hated pariah in her own town? All Sloane wanted was to be admired. How did she end up a sexual object of men, including her husband, who like to watch her have sex with other men and women?
If a measure of outstanding biographical writing is that it closes the gap between how we perceive a person from the outside, and what that person thinks, feels and desires, then this debut by a prize-winning writer and journalist not only succeeds, but takes such writing to new heights. For eight years and over thousands of hours, Taddeo recorded the lives of three "ordinary" women in different locations in the US. The result is this utterly compelling, scorching piece of reportage told in alternating chapters, which lays bare Lina, Maggie and Sloane's unspoken thoughts, their disappointments, their hopes, their obsessions and their unmet needs. Ultimately this stealth-bomber of a book is about how women so often become mere passengers in their own lives; their hopes and desires somehow lost, squashed or exploited along the way. No, it isn't cheerful, but oh my god you won't want to stop reading it.