Female desire has been seen as a problem since long before Freud, vexed, wondered what on Earth women want.
Entire vocabularies of insult are devoted to girls and women who dare to proclaim their existence as sexual beings. The protagonists in Lisa Taddeo's new book, Three Women, are not unusual in their complicated sexual histories; what makes their stories revolutionary is the exquisite candor with which Taddeo gives them voice.
In the tradition of Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family or Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Taddeo's book — her first — is a work of deep observation, long conversations, and a kind of journalistic alchemy. Taddeo spent years with the subjects of Three Women, and the investment pays off. As she writes in the book's prologue, "it's the quotidian minutes of our lives that will go on forever, that will tell us who we were," and she seamlessly weaves together everyday details and startlingly intimate moments into narratives that feel as real, as vital, as the pulse in your wrist.
The women she profiles are not diverse in most demographic senses — all are white, for instance — but each inhabits a different life trajectory. There's Sloane, a glamorous and successful restaurateur whose marriage includes sexual relationships with third parties, voyeurism, and a dawning realization (when reading Fifty Shades of Grey) that she is a submissive to her husband's dominant. There's a poor little rich girl aspect to her story. Sloane's privileged childhood included brittle and distracted parents, and by adolescence she was "not only an anorexic-bulimic, but the absolute best anorexic-bulimic she could be." Of the three, Sloane's tale feels the least satisfying, or perhaps the most perplexing, but it also allows Taddeo to practice a lack of judgment that seems almost radical: As long as things are working for all the adults involved, and nobody is being harmed, then sex and relationships can take many forms.
Lina (like Sloane, this is a pseudonym) is also sleeping with someone outside her marriage, but after that their stories diverge. Married for more than a decade to a man who won't kiss her, she loves her children but the rest of her life is suffocating her. "She wishes she could stop caring everything," Taddeo writes. "She wishes she could burn the house down." She reconnects online with her first love, who as a boy in high school had been "strong and hot and extremely quiet so that every time he opens his mouth it's exciting." Years of emotional and physical neglect, during which time she's also developed a panoply of aches and pains, have primed Lina for the glory of their reunion. Their affair is passionate, the attraction magnetic. Aidan is still hot as far as Lina is concerned, still quiet, withholding. He's married, too, and their meetings become an excruciating waiting game, one Lina worries she's losing. "Even in love Lina understands there is competition — a frantic need to be the one who will hurt less than the other." There's a kind of sexual idealism in Lina's yearning, and the reader aches to see what she doesn't, the disregard lurking behind Aidan's laconic "Hey, Kid" when he sees her.
And then there's Maggie — alone among the women, her real name is used, partly because of the extensive public record due to court proceedings in her case. When she first meets English teacher Aaron Knodel in the second semester of her freshman year, Knodel is considered the hot teacher at the North Dakota school Maggie attends; Maggie is "at that precipice, possessing, still, the dreams of a child, but now able to press them up against the potential of an adult." The teacher is "wholesomely carnal, wearing a drugstore cologne but possessing the strut of a movie star," in the eyes of his enthralled student. Over the course of high school, Aaron draws Maggie closer and closer, beguiling and seducing her — although refusing, in a kind of parody of principle, to let her unzip his pants. They do everything else, until his wife catches them.
The book begins with Maggie, now in her early 20s, headed to the courtroom, seeking some justice for what has been done to her, to her heart, to her trust, to her reputation. She knows the world sees her as "crazy and broken," the same world that named Knodel teacher of the year. As the three women's tales alternate, Taddeo narrates with a magically light touch, inhabiting each so fully we feel as if we're living alongside them. The book is sexually explicit — you might blush when reading it — but it never feels gratuitous or clinical.
Its prose is gorgeous, nearly lyrical as it describes the longings and frustrations that propel these ordinary women. Blending the skills of an ethnographer and a poet, Taddeo renders them extraordinary.
Kate Tuttle has written about books for the Boston Globe, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, Salon and Atlantic.com, among others.