When she first had the idea for a book on desire, Lisa Taddeo writes, she assumed she would be drawn to stories of male desire. That turned out not to be the case, although she begins “Three Women” by recounting a story about a man who pursued her mother, masturbating to her beauty from a distance. While it may seem counterintuitive to open a book about women’s desire with the story of an anonymous man’s lust, Taddeo methodically circles back to the ways in which men’s actions fuel, fulfill and warp female desire.
Over the course of eight years, Taddeo not only interviewed the titular three women but also immersed herself in their lives. It is far from an exhaustive look at desire, as its focus is distinctly cisgender and heterosexual, firmly invested in the dichotomy of male/female. Rather, it is an interrogation of the desires of these particular women. The book is narrative in tone, and Taddeo is stellar at embodying the women, taking on the voice of each in turn. It produces a feeling that the reader is sitting down over coffee to listen to the deeply personal and frequently painful stories of Maggie, Lina and Sloane.
The women are white, American, the first two Midwestern, Catholic and middle class, while Sloane is a product of East Coast, upper-class, Protestant privilege. Out of these similarities and differences arise recurrent themes that propel the book forward.
Outwardly, Lina is living a life of perfect domesticity: husband, home, children. Within, she is a woman starved of affection, married to a man who has avoided kissing her for over a decade. The reader cannot be surprised when Lina’s desperation leads to an affair with her high school sweetheart.
Maggie is a young woman whose adolescence has been marred by a series of older men whom she initially perceived as her protectors but who ultimately took advantage of her. The last, her high school English teacher, is put on trial for the sexual contact she alleges took place her senior year.
Sloane is sophisticated and enviably slender, the passion of her marriage centered on the regular inclusion of third parties in the marital bed. She is the lone woman who seems at first not merely content but invigorated by her desire and her sex life. Sloane is also the only one who identifies any same-sex attraction, though the word “bisexual” appears nowhere in the book. Instead, her relationships with women are couched in decidedly masculine and heterosexual terms: Sloane has had women.
With the disparate threads of these stories, Taddeo weaves complex connections between her subjects’ desires. The female body is a common element, as weight gain and weight loss play out as tragedies and triumphs. Lina’s giddy weight loss emboldens her pursuit of a lover. Facing her former teacher in court, Maggie fears the jury will see her weight gain as proof she couldn’t have been desired by this older and respected man. Sloane, whose mother put her on a diet as a preteen, using calorie restriction and amphetamines to keep puberty and her budding sexuality at bay, continues to control her body first through bulimia and then through deprivation.
Lina and Maggie’s stories overlap in the well of danger that is girlhood. The victim of a gang rape in high school, Lina, like Maggie, feels tainted by what happened to her. While Lina’s rape was only whispered about in her small town, Maggie’s exploitation plays out on the nightly news. Taddeo’s reporting is at its most powerful when it demands we face Maggie’s trauma and the cruel way American society criminalizes and pathologizes a young girl’s sexuality. Neither the media nor the court is nuanced enough to accept that Maggie was old enough to have her own sexual desires but too young and vulnerable to act on them.
Maggie’s lament that a man can “ruin” a girl and go on to be Teacher of the Year echoes the truth that women bear the consequences of not just their own desire but men’s desire, too. When Sloane’s affair with a co-worker is discovered, she readily accepts the anger of the man’s wife, as though he and Sloane’s husband, active participant and engineer of the affair, respectively, have no responsibility. At Lina’s support group, the other women condemn her for seducing another woman’s husband. Maggie, too, is cast as a teenage seductress, responsible for the crimes against her.
In the epilogue, Taddeo considers her mother’s end-of-life advice: “Don’t let them see you happy.” Other women, her mother means, and Taddeo doesn’t shy from uncovering the deeply misogynistic messages that pervade our society: Women’s desire is dangerous, and other women will steal our happiness if they can. These are messages meant to keep women powerless and set us against one another.
Although this is a book about women’s desire, readers will not find in its pages an answer to the question of “what women really want.” Rather, it is a heartbreaking litany of the disappointments and betrayals that shape female longing.
Greenwood is the author of “All the Ugly and Wonderful Things.” Her next novel, “The Reckless Oath We Made,” is forthcoming in August.