Scarred and Scared and Horny and Tired and In Love

Three Women

“It’s the nuances of desire that hold the truth of who we are at our rawest moments.”

Lina, a housewife in Indiana, has an affair with her first love because her marriage lacks physical intimacy. Maggie, underemployed in North Dakota, begins seeing the illicit relationship with her high school English teacher as far more sinister manipulation. Sloane, a restauranteur in Rhode Island, brings other partners into her bedroom because it pleases her husband. In narrating decades of these women’s lives, Taddeo attempts to draw universal connections between pain, pleasure, and power.

Three Women. By Lisa Taddeo. Avid Reader Press. 2019. Hardcover.

How did I get the book?

I picked this book up ages ago at Strand Books, and what better way to start the New Year than soaked in unattainable desire? My copy is signed by Taddeo with the annotation, Storms can be hedonic.

You can purchase the book for yourself here and support independent bookstores!

What did I think?

Taddeo’s examination of desire begins with sexual trauma, which each of her subjects struggles to reckon with. “Something I didn't understand, barely remembered, had the power to change my whole damn life,” Lina notes. Taddeo adds, “Pain can so easily feel like the most crippling anger.” The pain also makes Lina feel as though she’s constantly missing opportunities for joy, that when she does experience it the moments must be written down to differentiate them from her ongoing mental breakdown. Maggie is similarly vulnerable, trying to be a child and a woman at once while never appropriately expressing her victimhood, feeling because her depression is over a man it somehow is less worthy. “Everybody cares so much that she lost her virginity that everyone forgets to care that she just lost her virginity,” Taddeo writes. “The hurt doesn't disappear, but it changes. It turns the manageable color of a bruise.” By contrast, Sloane stifles her pain by concentrating on “not being boring,” turning herself into someone “remarkable in one department” to feel normal, though the trauma still lives inside her, a memory her brain can’t control.

An extension of coping with this trauma is how each woman differentiates love, sex, and infatuation; lines that blur like freshly smeared road dividers. Frustrated by rejections from her husband, Lina quickly falls obsessed with her lover, lingering in the moments before she meets him when “the roots of her teeth tingle with excitement” thinking about bumping into his, how she wants to find out everything about him in the way muscles crave heroin. “Doctors medicate her depression with things she can't pronounce...if they could just prescribe a man like this to be where he says he's going to be. That's all she needs to live painlessly.” But in their sex and intimacy, Lina also knows there’s something lacking, that the moments “dribble down the shower drain after they were done.” “When the French called the orgasm la petite mort they meant a happy little death…this is not that,” Taddeo explains. “Every time could be the last time she will ever feel this way.” Sloane finds a similar comfort in sex—how it can make her hair an admirable dirty mess while bringing forth clarity and melting negativity—but she’s able to more clearly distinguish her mental space in extramarital encounters as a dishonest stasis, “the core of another person, staying still long enough for her to match her own parts against his.” Maggie’s sexual relationship with Mr. Knodel is foremost inappropriate, but nonetheless powerfully charged as she showers for his phone calls and feels dumb not understanding what it means that he “manscaped,” where she’s fascinated by “the foreign softness of certain patches of skin” and how she “inspired an army of blood vessels to fatten [his] flesh out,” hoping that when she lies on top of him “she isn’t too much of a child.” Even though their time together typically leaves Maggie staring at the ceiling while her orgasm goes cold and her teacher redresses, she also feels love. “Everything she has ever wanted is wrapped up in one person…almost too convenient to be real,” Taddeo writes. “He looks at her, she is sure, like he wants to marry her. She's too young to know that men can be like this one day and then not need to see you for a week.” This makes it even harder for Maggie when Mr. Knodel abruptly cuts off their communication, hence when she sees him years later in the courtroom (after having brought him up on charges of sexual assault), she wonders what it’d be like if his hands and hers were still friends.

All this desire directly correlates with power dynamics. Sloane believes she can read the minds of men and anticipate their wants, yet she also admits that this comes as a result of trying to fulfill her husband’s wants, that it does nothing toward her goal of liking herself. When the wife of a man she sleeps with confronts her—“You’re the woman…Don’t you know you’re supposed to have the power?”—it opens Sloane’s eyes to how she has never felt control. Instead, her “messing around” has always been dictated by her husband. Rather than asserting power over her trauma, she’s punished herself, a rather male notion in itself. Maggie also comes to realize Mr. Knodel holds all of the power, that she feels in “the prison…of being so obsessed with your partner that you can't enjoy the mindless organization of laundry day,” but for him, “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.” At first, Maggie is destroyed by his disappearance, wanting more than anything for him to call and remind her of her existence, but eventually, this turns to resentment. “She could be a ruined girl and he not only would go on living his life but would, in fact, thrive.” This burns inside Maggie as she sits through the trial, wishing for Mr. Knodel to have just one night in jail, to feel an ounce of her terribleness. Lina arguably holds the least power out of the three women. She’s so entranced by her lover—how him wanting to hold her hand suddenly makes her confident, like “a display lamp in a lighting store that wasn’t plugged in but now is”—that her obsession becomes like another limb. It also makes her so anxious that she is always worried how things with the lover will end. Any time she tries to vocalize her feelings, however, he responds, “I don't want to hurt you so we should probably stop,” which Lina knows means, “I want to have sex with you but I don't love you.” To keep him, she must keep everything inside, be the one who lies, “who pretends there is something to her life beyond him.”

Final Verdict?

🌟 4.75/5 — Excellent

People trying to sell this book as a universal depiction of heterosexual female desire are mistaken. It reads instead as three parallel, painfully true short stories, which in many ways allow Taddeo to explore concepts like searching for a word stronger than regret or the description of an anvil that can end careless joy more effectively. Ultimately, I cared little about the research aspect of the book, and instead, as I would in fiction, I focused on the emotional truth, which was why I found myself confused by critics who wanted the book to do more than tell these women’s stories. Although there are moments in Taddeo’s introduction and epilogue that struck me (particularly, “We don't remember what we want to remember. We remember what we can't forget”), her real strength is in seeing inside these women’s souls, in pulling out truly human experiences: the fear of wanting too much, of being disbelieved, of never being satisfied. They are truths everyone can relate to, to feel seen for a moment. If these truths are most important to you, then you’ll leave this one satisfied.

Beyond the book.

This book has been a worldwide sensation, so chances are you’ve probably already heard the good, bad, and in between. Taddeo did the media circuit all the way around, from a PG-exploration of desire for CBS This Morning to reading the unfiltered material at Politics & Prose in Washington, DC. She also opened up on her research process for Poets & Writers, if you’re in Roxane Gay’s camp of thinking this doesn’t sound like it hits the requirements for nonfiction.

Taddeo’s fiction debut, Animal, releases this summer: a novel exploring how a woman reacts to male violence by trying to regain her power in a society where such is frowned upon. You can pre-order it here.

See you again soon!

Rachel x

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