That Obscure Object of Desire

Three Women BY Lisa Taddeo. New York: Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster. 320 pages. $27.

IN HER PROLOGUE FOR THREE WOMEN, journalist Lisa Taddeo describes the conversion that gave what she had conceived of as “a book about human desire” its ultimate, female shape. A contributor to Esquire and New York magazine, Taddeo envisioned her nonfiction debut in the line of Thy Neighbor’s Wife (1980), Gay Talese’s dispatch from the sexual revolution’s American front. True to that model, she first looked to men for the essential, scalable contours of modern sexual life. But the men she met on her scouting missions bored Taddeo, their accounts blurring into one basic tale of infatuation, infidelity, and an orgasm that swept the whole thing back out to sea.

It was the women who held her attention, the ones who Taddeo claims were often just getting started as the men washed away. She found greater “complexity and beauty and violence, even, in the way the women experienced the same event. In these ways and more, it was the female parts of an interlude that, in my eyes, came to stand for the whole of what longing in America looks like.” In Taddeo’s eyes as well, “the stories wherein desire was something that could not be controlled, when the object of desire dictated the narrative,” contained “the most magnificence, the most pain.”

Jonathan Gardner, Nature Lover, 2018, oil on linen, 66 × 36".
Jonathan Gardner, Nature Lover, 2018, oil on linen, 66 × 36". Courtesy the artist and Casey Kaplan, New York

Her choice to focus on such stories, Taddeo implies, assigned her project a gender fairly early in its gestation. She selected her characters, all of whom are white, mostly straight, and under forty-five, according to “the relatability of their stories, their intensity, and the way that the events, if they happened in the past, still sat on the woman’s chest.” About the sovereignty of her subjects, a few awkward phrases of empowerment fall: “these stories belong to these women,” three actual people who remain “in charge of their narratives.” Taddeo is more convincing when she makes her own, less respectable ambitions plain: “I am confident that these stories convey vital truths about women and desire.”

In its opening pages especially, Three Women is like that, pounding gauntlets like thunderbolts at the reader’s feet. On one page the author aligns her effort with a larger reclamation, our current, necessary engagement with “the all-too-familiar question of when and why and by whom women’s stories are believed.” On the next she sets forth—and assumes the reader’s consent to—a staler, more limited point of view: “Throughout history, men have broken women’s hearts in a particular way. . . . Meanwhile, women wait.” That Taddeo is most fascinated by stories of female romantic and sexual abjection squarely in the Victorian mold is one complicating factor in a book framed as an immersive report on the current state of female desire. She spent eight years getting to know her subjects: In North Dakota, Taddeo met Maggie, a young woman traumatized by her seduction at seventeen by one of her high school teachers. In Indiana there was thirtysomething Lina, who lacks the means to leave her affectionless marriage and pursues an affair with a high school flame. In Newport, Rhode Island, she found Sloane, a privileged restaurateur who agrees to her husband’s demand that she fuck men of his choosing while he watches—sometimes in person, sometimes via video.

The reader is meant to understand Taddeo’s extraordinary access to the inner lives of these women as a feat of reporting—of time and miles logged, sources engaged, authority earned and spent. But Three Women reads like a work of psychological realism, every page showcasing the author’s radical empathy and almost occult communion with her subjects. Taddeo generally uses limited-third-person narration, moving freely between the subjects’ experience and their psyches. There is an unnerving charge to this movement, something both persuasive and suspect in the book’s undulating form, its sense of narrative modes and lived perspectives in a constant state of merger and division. In Taddeo’s rendering, Maggie, Lina, and Sloane are at once real people and imagined figures, confined and liberated by the tight lens through which she presents their lives.

If her approach is often distracting—rarely is such an effaced narrator this overbearing—Taddeo, who also writes fiction, is a master of character. She braids the women’s stories into a whole unified by a sense of privation, of women estranged from their appetites—never more so than when they appear to indulge them. She makes of this predicament a curious page-turner, as intensely readable as it is marked by a certain discomfort. Rife with teenage and middle-age lust, courtroom drama, and ecstatic threesomes, the tales both veer into pulp and interrogate its terms. My own self-consciousness tended to rise in proportion to Taddeo’s success: The frothier the melodrama and purer the voyeuristic frisson, the stronger the impulse to watch myself as a reader, to clock and wonder at my own responses. Part of the point of these humane but unsparing portraits is to interrogate cultural refl exes that constrain the telling and consumption of women’s stories.

It is fitting, then, that Taddeo is at her most self-conscious relating the story of Maggie, the teenager “ruined” by her 2009 affair with then-twenty-nine-year-old English teacher Aaron Knodel. Taddeo frames the story with an account of the criminal case brought against Knodel six years after the fact, using the second person to enter Maggie’s perspective:

He sits across from you. He’s wearing what he used to wear to school. A button-down shirt, a tie, and slacks. It’s weird. Like, you were expecting him to be in a suit coat. Something more dressy and serious. This outfi t makes him feel knowable again. You wonder if you have been wrong these last few years. . . . For the briefest of moments you want to reach across with your small hands that he loved—Does he still love them now? Where does the love of hands go when it dies?—and hold his face in them and say, Oh fuck I’m sorry for betraying you.

In alternating third-person passages, we return to Maggie at seventeen, her idle interest in Knodel, his much more focused grooming of her. Rife with heartache and confusion, Maggie’s chapters strike into glittering relief a young girl’s attachment to a predator—the innocence, thrill, and horror of it fused into an igneous topography. Taddeo is a savage observer of interpersonal economies of power, the market values of age, flesh, gender, social status, class. In the early stages of their involvement, a besotted Maggie envies what appears to be Knodel’s genuine interest in a title he picks up at a bookstore: “No matter how much her small hands inveigle him, he has brain space for reading books and raising children and interacting with employees in big box stores. That, she decides, is power.”

Taddeo is not interested in Knodel’s perspective, or in that of any of the men who populate Three Women, all of whom the reader will come to regard askance, at best. With Maggie she makes her allegiance most plain, as when her narrator steps forward—and into the second person—to comment on Maggie’s copy of Twilight, which Knodel annotated with insipid love notes. “There are people who will say that this is not rape, that . . . this girl wanted it, too,” Taddeo writes.

But then you see the notes. Imagine a child, who has idealized a fairy-tale love story, reading notes from a teacher, who is effectively saying, Yes, yes, I am your vampire lover and you are my forbidden fruit. We are your favorite love story. For the rest of your life, nothing will taste like this.

Can you imagine.

Another invitation to empathy comes via Lina, who implores her sometimes supportive, sometimes judgy women’s discussion group to understand her affair with Aidan, a diffident, married, but marginally down-to-fuck old classmate. Lina was dying of her husband’s indifference: “Can you imagine? she asks, going around the room with her eyes. Can you imagine begging to be touched? By the man who swore to love you forever?” Lina must fight the idea that healthy kids, a working dishwasher, and a dried-up marriage are plenty for a woman like her. Even as she manages to hoist herself above that mark, Lina is subject to the process of refraction—social, cultural, patriarchal—that has long divided women from their own basic drives.

“Sometimes it seemed that she didn’t have any desires of her own,” Taddeo writes of her own mother, whose story she uses to frame those of her subjects. “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.” All Lina wants, we are told repeatedly, is a daily supply of deep French kisses. Despite containing the most graphic depictions of sex and thwarted emotional need, Lina’s chapters drag in part because Taddeo doesn’t do much to complicate or move past this claim. Instead she focuses on Lina’s increasingly desperate pursuit of Aidan and their sad, fleeting trysts—behavior imagined all too easily.

The Sloane chapters forgo slick formal moves in favor of a steady, frequently devastating rhythm. Taddeo appears most comfortable writing about her thoroughbred: a woman of uncommon gifts and enterprise; a beauty like Taddeo’s mother; a wife and mother and haver of men who hates herself “every moment of the day.” The appearance of a croissant can blow her circuitry, so fraught is her relationship to appetite, so compulsive the demand “to constantly reassess what kind of woman she was. . . . Not to give up too much of oneself, not to give up too little. The perfect amount, or she might be a ghost, fat, disagreeable.” Sloane is subject, above all, to her husband’s desires, which toll with great and regular clarity. Her story is most unsettling not for the marital arrangement it details but for its X-ray of a partnership that Sloane experiences as both fulfilling and hinged on her exploitation, a gendered, unidirectional form of misuse.

Are there women, really? Are there at least three of them? Read as an answer to that question, Three Women is an ambivalent document: involving, granular, and brilliantly observed as drama, but too scattered to mobilize concepts as vast and abstruse as gender and desire. Read untroubled by questions of gender essentialism, the book is a triumph, affirming as worthy of considered, compassionate study the intimate lives of everyday women. Perhaps it is a credit to Taddeo’s unwieldy pursuit that I have spent more time trying to figure out how to read Three Women than I did actually reading it. In fact, the ultimate satisfactions of Taddeo’s effort lie in the gentle frustration of her larger aim, in the book’s confi rmation of the elusive nature of the thing it attempts to describe. In that, it tells a truth as old and vital as they come.

Michelle Orange is the author of This Is Running for Your Life (2013) and the forthcoming Pure Flame (2020; both Farrar, Straus and Giroux).