Three Women: A deep dive into the complexities of female sexuality and desire

‘Tis the season to be jolly… well, it is if you’re in publishing, anyway. As beach-book season heats up, so too do the jacket blurbs in a bid to catch readers’ attentions amid wave after wave of must-reads.

Lisa Taddeo’s book, signed in a reported seven-figure deal, has been touted as one of the summer’s great word-of-mouthers.

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Eat, Pray, Love author and fellow American Elizabeth Gilbert describes it as a “masterpiece”; while compatriot Dave Eggers hails it as “one of the most riveting, assured and scorchingly original debuts I’ve ever read”.

Deep dives into female desire are nothing new – heck, My Secret Garden was published almost 50 years ago; Thy Neighbor’s Wife nearly 40 years ago.

Yet Taddeo’s journalistic rigour, coupled with a luscious prose, makes Three Women one of the few times where the delivery justifies the hype.

And, landing in a post-#MeToo climate, not to mention at a time when the politics of women’s desire in the US is once again being chewed over, the book certainly benefits from good timing.

“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,” writes Taddeo.

An article in New York magazine published in 2010, which detailed the hosts and cocktail waitresses of New York, kick-started Taddeo’s project. Yet another nucleus for the book appears to be her own mother, a woman of ravishing beauty (with hair like “the chocolates found in the Tyrolean Alps”) who endured a male stranger masturbating right behind her every day on her way to and from work.

Taddeo’s own father’s attraction to her mother “was evident in a way that still makes me uncomfortable to recall”. There was a ‘cruel’ lover before Taddeo’s mother married, and another, a jeweller, who tried to stop her parents’ wedding.

Taddeo realised, even from what she was seeing within her own home, that female longing was more complex and quietly revolutionary than first meets the eye.

The titular three women at the heart of Taddeo’s non-fiction are ordinary enough. Their interior lives were scrutinised forensically, yet with great empathy, for almost a decade.

After searching high and low for the right three women for her project, Taddeo embedded herself in these women’s lives, often for years at a time.

Maggie is a high-schooler in North Dakota who strikes up a relationship with her older, married English teacher. Initially, theirs is a supportive and platonic union, referencing the tender romance of the Twilight books, that soon turns physical.

He breaks up with her when he turns 30 (she is 18). Some time later he is named Teacher of The Year, and Maggie breaks her silence on their damaging relationship within a small, tight-knit community. He denies the relationship, even when a court case is brought against him. Alas, the outcome is all too predictable.

In arguably the most riveting strand of the book, Sloane is a beautiful, polished and successful restaurant owner who agrees to have sex with other men and women while her chef husband watches, often as “a coveted stretch of shoreline foams outside the window”.

Eventually, and only after reading Fifty Shades of Grey, she comes to recognise herself as a submissive lover.

Lina is in a marriage with a man who hasn’t kissed her in years: the act now ‘offends’ him. Frustrated and isolated, she turns to social media and reconnects with Adam, a high school sweetheart who, for a time at least, fulfils her romantic needs.

These are not extraordinary tales, on the face of it. In fact, each one could feasibly be the starting point for a frothy, genial work of boilerplate fiction. But it’s this ordinariness that makes them relatable while Taddeo’s storytelling, characterisation and pacing makes each one pulsate.

She is unsparing in her descriptiveness of the women’s various sex lives, but this is not a titillating, Fifty Shades-style romp. In most cases, the women’s female desire doesn’t empower them, or enrich their lives in the long term.

If anything, it often threatens to destabilise them, and comes a distant second to the desires of the men they share their lives with. And, as Taddeo astutely notes in her prologue, it’s the condemnation of both women and men that makes up much of the fallout.

Taddeo’s journalistic muscle is the book’s big draw (and likely the reason why her American publisher, Simon & Schuster, reportedly wrote her a ‘blank cheque’ to sufficiently explore the idea of female desire).

Three Women is a work of non-fiction, though it is as mealy and often chaotic as a novel. Quite a lot of the writing in Three Women is doing plenty of descriptive muscle work. There’s eating, drinking and chewing on every page, and yet for all its thematic challenges, Three Women is a surprisingly easy read. Taddeo teeters towards mannered territory on occasion, but her prose is nonetheless a pure joy.

Exposing that women are often shamed and exploited through the prism of female sexuality and desire, Taddeo doesn’t offer up any searing, polemic. Each woman’s story stands on its own, allowing the reader to harvest whatever wisdom from it they’ll want to.

But Three Women will linger in the mind long after the last page has been read. Per Dave Eggers’ prediction, it is likely to be “breathlessly debated”. It will spark several conversations, not all of them comfortable ones. This is a landmark title that will likely be pressed into many hands with much enthusiasm in the coming months.

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