BooksJanuary 5, 2020

Three Women: The astonishing study of female desire that has everyone talking


Summer reissue: Three Women is a fervent, scrupulous qualitative review of female desire. It’s also a lesson in commitment – and the powerful act of paying attention.

First published 8 July, 2019.

Imagine a pole vaulter strolling into the Olympics, eyeing the bar – the women’s world record is 5.06m – and casually hitching it like a metre higher. Then fucking nailing the jump. That’s what American journalist Lisa Taddeo has just done for longform journalism.

She wallops you with her excellence right there in the first paragraph, an author’s note which begins:

“This is a work of non-fiction. Over the course of eight years I have spent thousands of hours with the women in this book – in person, on the phone, by text message and email. I moved to the towns where they lived and settled in as a resident so I could better understand their day-to-day lives…”

Eight years. Eight years, Taddeo subjugated herself to her sources, to their stories, knowing they could bail at any time. And she hung in there, even as several women did bail, halfway through the project.

The women that remain are ordinary but in completely knowing them, in inhabiting them, Taddeo makes them more. She knows it, too. False modesty and impostor syndrome – those plagues of professional women – be damned: “I am confident that these stories convey vital truths about women and desire,” she winds up her author’s note.

A cover blurb (from a dude, weirdly) promising this book will be “breathlessly debated” misses the point. Taddeo’s not out to stir debate or call women to arms: what she’s done is more simple and also much, much harder. What she’s done is listen.

“It is these three women who are in charge of their narratives,” she writes. “There are many sides to all stories, but this is theirs.”

Taddeo writes about Maggie, ruined by a sexual relationship with her teacher, watching that formative affair picked over by the courts. Watching power play out. She writes about Sloane, a vibrant, self-assured restaurateur who discovers, to her surprise, that she enjoys sleeping with other men while her husband watches, that she enjoys the role of submissive. And she writes about Lina, an Indiana housewife who spends her days cajoling her kids into eating chicken nuggets and harbours a craving to be properly kissed.

The women who dropped out are there in the background, too: never explicitly referred to, but a chorus that informs Taddeo’s brio and tone of authority. When she makes a sweeping statement she does so with come-at-me confidence. (I’m quoting her at length because what would you have me cut from this paragraph?)

“Throughout history, men have broken women’s hearts in a particular way. They love and then grow weary and spend weeks and months extricating themselves soundlessly, pulling their tails back into their doorways, drying themselves off, and never calling again. Meanwhile, women wait. The more in love they are and the less options they have, the longer they wait, hoping that he will return with a smashed phone, with a smashed face, and say, I’m sorry, I was buried alive and the only thing I thought of was you… I lost your number, it was stolen from me by the men who buried me alive, and I’ve spent three years looking in phone books and now I have found you. I didn’t disappear, everything I felt didn’t just leave. You were right to know that would be cruel, unconscionable, impossible. Marry me.”

Aside from the prologue and author’s note, Taddeo has scrubbed all traces of herself from the scene. She has asked so many questions of her three women, listened so carefully to the answers, that she recounts each of their stories with a sort of one-person omniscience. It’s like she climbed into their heads and downloaded each woman’s lived experience, in full, straight onto the page. You forget there’s a mediator between the three women and Three Women. Taddeo writes as if she is them. To read is to be convinced.

To tell Maggie’s story, for example, Taddeo naturally drops into portmanteaus – driftlove, shamehot, fearquick – that I bet were pulled from Maggie’s teen diaries, but could equally have been pulled from mine, back when I felt like my feelings were bigger than anyone else’s, bigger than boring, grown-up words. And just like that, Taddeo reeled me in: reading Maggie, I was right there with her, an insufferable adolescent all over again.

At other times, reading this book felt like watching Planet Earth – the exquisite footage; the trusted, deeply good narrator; the weight of patience and observation stitched into every frame.

Not like Planet Earth: there is sex, lots of sex. I’ve never seen it written about like this, completely without blushes and excuses: just desire, desire, desire, and then the act itself, broken down to its carnal, animal bones. Who was it said women only want sex as a means to obtain intimacy? Taddeo’s three women do want intimacy but they also want thrusting, French-kissing. They want men who taste sweet and talk dirty and are DTF when a woman’s got her period. They want

Often there is so much detail and interiority you forget you’re reading non-fiction. In one scene Sloane recounts the first time she cooked with the man she would marry. Taddeo drills down to the pattern on the rug Sloane was standing on – and then pushes several strata further, into Sloane’s mind, noting that the triangles “made her think of pyramids in sandy countries she’d never seen”.

“Awareness,” she writes, again as Sloane. “You may think you understand the word, but you have to absorb the word. Your husband must be aware of you as though he is in your brain.”

As though he is in your brain.

Taddeo writes short fiction that has been hung about with prizes. And she has been writing shorter, brilliant non-fiction for years. In 2008, she wrote for Esquire about the last days of Heath Ledger; in 2010 the magazine published her extraordinary piece on LeBron James (“To watch LeBron James play is to know that you are not a superstar… he is this game’s animal, a beast made of pistons, a dark gazelle”). Here’s how she intro’ed a 2014 profile on Obama’s campaign manager:

“When you have been to the moon, you can’t come back to Earth and stand in line at Starbucks. You can’t order a coffee, and pay for it, and drink it beside someone wearing Sarah Palin glasses and a cruise visor. The regression to mediocrity is stunning and sapping. You would die inside.”

Deliciously, it was another feature, in which Rachel Uchitel sets out the women’s version of the Tiger Woods scandal, that landed Taddeo the deal for Three Women. Oh, I just love it: it was Woods and his ego, his gobbling, that sparked this extraordinary, revolutionary book on female desire, female ego. (Even better, you’d never know Woods played that bit part unless you read an interview with Taddeo, like this one.)

A note on the journalism side of things. Compared to what Taddeo’s pulled off here, the feature pieces I’ve worked on (even those that took months and months and felt like they sucked the life from me) are piffling, laughable. But what I’m sure holds for both is it’s not the note taking, the research, that saps your energy. It’s the emotional investment. First you lay yourself down in front of a person and ask them to trust you. Then you draw out a story from them and you must tend to it, too. In idle moments you come at the piece from every which-way. Big stories – the ones a writer cares about, invests in – wriggle their way into the subconscious. Every journalist I know, when they’re at the writing stage, dreams about their intro. And I’m talking about stories that take six months max from whoa to go. Two weeks, more often.

There’s also a stage where you completely freak out, overwhelmed by how much material you’ve pulled together, despairing of ever finding a way through. Perhaps Taddeo’s greatest accomplishment here is in boiling down her insane marathon of reportage into a narrative that feels sharp, acute.

This is all the more impressive given that the story she tells – the story she chose, above all others, to spend her time on – is a nebulous one. It could so easily have bloated and stalled.

Stack on top of that the years and years of research, the weight of obligation she must have felt toward her sources, and you’d be forgiven for anticipating something excruciating, overstuffed, earnest, careful. A book to smother the reader in granular detail.

But Taddeo writes like it’s all brand new. Like she’s high, perfectly high, punching out twitchy, cutting sentences in the wee hours. She writes like she’s elated to be writing. Like it’s easy. Like she’s electrified by it.

Here she is on the lead-in to a threesome:

“A husband who makes the first move. A wife who closes her eyes to the first move. A third woman who has eaten nothing all day. Someone turns on the music. Someone pours a drink. Someone reapplies lipstick. Someone positions her body in such a way. Someone is less hurt than he should be. Someone is afraid of her carnality. Someone is worried about not being sexual enough. Someone lights a candle. Someone closes a French door. Someone’s stomach drops. It is everything to do with bodies and it is nothing at all to do with bodies.”

On Sloane’s youth:

“For most of her two decades she’d been a ghost in light linen, drinking orange juice at elegant tables, being exquisite on Easter.”

On Maggie, discovering the teacher she says went down on her in his basement has just been named teacher of the year:

“For a long time Maggie stands in the eel dark watching the great trees rise into the blackness. Diligently she smokes half a pack of cigarettes, one after the other.”

Every sentence is like that, just about. It’s exhilarating to read, as it clearly was to write. I suspect that after eight years of research – of run-up – it was a relief for Taddeo to hurl herself, finally, at the high bar of writing.

For Three Women, her debut, she was paid seven figures for the US rights alone. Her website promises another book next year, and a third the year after that.  

I picture her eyeing the bar, hitching it higher. I picture her fucking nailing it.

Three Women, by Lisa Taddeo (Bloomsbury, $34.99) is available at Unity Books.

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