Words by Rosily Roberts
Reading Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women, it’s easy to forget that it’s a work of non-fiction. It reads as a novel, replete with the necessary cliff hangers and shocking twists that we now expect from bestselling fiction. Easily the most gripping book I read last year, I found myself hoping for red lights and heavy traffic on the bus home from work, just to be able to squeeze in a few more pages. Meticulously researched — Taddeo spent more than eight years compiling the stories that would make up Three Women, crossing America six times in total and spending months living with each of the trio — the book allows the reader an unprecedented insight into the sexuality and desires of three real women.
That Taddeo is foremost a journalist is clear. Despite the literary twists and turns, her language is plain and straightforward. Very rarely does she pass judgment on these women. Instead, what we are given is a rare insight into their own psyches, told almost exclusively from their point of view and often in their own words, which Taddeo has neatly paraphrased. The book, therefore, is as easy to read and comprehend as the content is difficult to digest and endure.
Three Women seamlessly treads the line between fiction and non-fiction, in a way that might be disconcerting to readers who prefer their genres strictly, neatly delineated. However, the ambiguity of the prose as a whole holds up a mirror to the ambiguity of the actions within. Each character makes decisions that could be perceived as immoral or thoughtless. They are after all real people, and the book is a reminder that, unlike the portrayals of female characters that have dominated literature for centuries, women and their desires cannot be easily or tidily circumscribed. These are women who have made mistakes, knowingly inflicted wrongdoing or harm, yet they retain an overarching degree of likeability and (on some level) relatability.
Lina is a woman whose husband has expressed that he no longer wants to kiss her, provoking her to instigate a romantic affair with her high school love interest; Sloane is married to a man who likes to watch her have sex with other men, and for the most part, she enjoys it too; Maggie is a woman in her early twenties who, at the tender age of seventeen, had a sexual relationship with one of her teachers. Despite the sometimes shocking circumstances laid out by Taddeo in searingly realistic detail, each woman is painfully relatable. I found myself on numerous occasions relating so deeply to what each of the women were feeling, subsequently turning the investigative gaze onto my own behaviour and experiences, with the uncomfortable admission that my own doings perhaps wouldn’t fare well when placed under such rigorous forensic scrutiny.
What Three Women seems to unveil is the universality of female sexual experience. Or at the very least, Taddeo uncovers the universality of female thoughts about and perception of sexual experience. The single criticism that can deservedly be leveled at Taddeo’s book is that the three women she chose are all straight and white, which encourages a heteronormative and somewhat skewed data sample of the world’s female population.
However, Taddeo never purports to speak about or for all women. Instead, she provides the reader a lens through which we glimpse a tangible, intimate vision of the lives of just three. While the characters and experiences in the book may not be representative of all women, I believe that all women will be able to relate, at least to some degree, to the emotions and thoughts experienced by Maggie, Lina and Sloane.
The book is prefaced by an account of Taddeo’s own mother, who, during her young adulthood in Bologna, Italy, in the 1960s, was followed to and from work every day by a man who masturbated as he walked behind her. She grew to accept this as normal, something many women undoubtedly understand from the unwanted sexual advances or crude language that we so often experience and are trained to ignore. It’s a reminder of how quickly we’re willing to accept what should be unacceptable. However, what it also provides is a darkly stark contrast to the desires of the women in the book. Unlike this man, who is apparently more than happy to make public his sexual desire, Maggie, Lina and Sloane are all either encouraged, or coerced into keeping theirs hidden and secret. Each narrative is shrouded by a grimy layer or deceit — hiding illicit affairs, lying about their whereabouts and stealing away to remote nooks to achieve clandestine sexual gratification. What the man in the preface sees as his right to do in public is for these women a shameful exploration, to take place only in the claustrophobic confines of the veiled and confidential corners of their lives.
I, like so many other readers, instantly took to Google as soon as I read the closing paragraph, eager to find more information about the characters, and what happened to them. I read every article about Maggie’s court case, looked at her photograph numerous times, trying to match the face of now late-twenty-something who has since trained as a social worker with the teenage girl enamoured by her teacher. Photos of Aaron Knodel —the teacher in question — are there too, captioned with the disturbing news that he’s still teaching. It seems that he in no way atoned for his wrongdoings. The other two women are given aliases, so are more difficult to find, however, that did not stop me searching endlessly for small restaurants in Newport, Rhode Island, owned by a husband and wife, so desperate was I to put faces to the characters I had come to know. That, I believe, is testament to the book’s power. It’s been months now since I read it first, but I find myself still thinking about it often, relating my own life back to those of Maggie, Lina and Sloane.