The most perplexing thing about “Three Women,” Lisa Taddeo’s buzzy new book — ostensibly about female desire — is that it’s not really about that at all. Read it with any expectation that it will live up to the marketing and you will wonder why, exactly, each of the principal women in it loses all sense of herself if she’s not the focus of a particular man’s gaze.
“There has to be emotion involved,” a 30-something Midwesterner named Lina texts, in an offended outburst, to her married lover, Aidan. “U know how I feel about you and I am assuming you do not feel the same about me.”
Come on, Lina, you know he doesn’t. This is a guy who texts you to meet up for a quickie in the same wooded outdoor spot where you had sex in his old pickup when he was your high school boyfriend .
“K,” Aidan texts back, because truly he could take or leave her. Yet Lina — a bored 30-something Indiana housewife whose dud of a husband won’t even kiss her and who could benefit from picking up a copy of “The Feminine Mystique” — allows herself to be at Aidan’s beck and call. That’s not an assertion of desire. It’s a sublimation.
It’s hard to say, though, which of Taddeo’s three women has the most amorphous sense of self. Might it be Sloane, the blue-blooded, 40-something Newport restaurateur whose chef husband chooses an ever-changing menu of mostly male, occasionally female lovers he likes to watch her have sex with, sometimes joining in himself? Or possibly Maggie, who is in her 20s as the book begins but was a promising North Dakota high school student with a turbulent home life when she fell madly for the teacher she later accused of molesting her?
I don’t think it’s Maggie — I have hope for her — but the other two are tied. Which makes it bizarre that Taddeo chose to tell their stories, as if they would provide some sort of illumination.
“Three Women” is a messy book that seems, along the edges, to want to ask profound questions about women’s agency and big-picture desires, like how they want to shape their lives, and how to prioritize their own wants. Certainly, sexual shaming interests Taddeo. Each of her subjects, at some point, has been branded a loose woman who asked for it, even when violence was being perpetrated against her.
Taddeo has some curious ideas, though. In the prologue, she tells a very creepy story about her mother as a young woman in 1960s Italy, being followed to work every day by an old man who would masturbate as he trailed along behind her.
“I wonder if she cried at night,” Taddeo muses. Then: “Perhaps she even cried for the lonely old man.” Much more likely, perhaps not — and what a bizarre speculative leap to make. This was the first clue that “Three Women” might not do what Taddeo says she intends: “to register the heat and sting of female want so that men and other women might more easily comprehend before they condemn.”
To achieve that, the book would have had to go wider and deeper, beyond the tedious tawdriness that makes it read at times like soft-core porn, with all the literary ickiness that implies: excruciating sex scenes between thinly drawn characters we’re given little reason to care about.
Everyone in these braided tales seems very white, and very familiar: Lina giving off a whiff of “Fatal Attraction” (yes, I hate that cliché, too), Sloane evidently bait for the “Fifty Shades of Grey” crowd. Maggie fits a type, too: the sexy schoolgirl, crushing hard for teacher.
Hers is the only narrative here that uses largely real names and biographical details, with news accounts and court records to back it up. Maggie, whose last name is Wilken, eventually went to the police about her relationship with Aaron Knodel, the trusted, married Teacher of the Year who was charged with, and in 2015 acquitted of, having sexual contact with her.
What makes Maggie’s story remarkable is Taddeo’s admirable willingness to take it seriously in all its conflicted complexity — to believe that an underage girl’s fervent desire for an older man does not cancel out her need for protection from the damage he might do her; to understand that the statement “She wanted it” might coexist with the statement “He was the adult, and it’s against the law.”
Post-#MeToo, our culture is only just beginning to correct its reflexive dismissal of girls and women who cry sexual assault. A book about that is not what Taddeo set out to write. But it’s hard not to wish that she had dug further into Maggie’s story and jettisoned the others. That could have made an insightful read, timed perfectly for right now.
By Lisa Taddeo
Avid Reader, 320 pp., $27
Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.