In the prologue of Lisa Taddeo’s “Three Women,” the author gives us an image that haunts the rest of this shocking book: “My mother never spoke about what she wanted. About what turned her on or off. Sometimes it seemed that she didn’t have any desires of her own. That her sexuality was merely a trail in the woods, the unmarked kind that is made by boots trampling tall grass. And the boots belonged to my father.”
Taddeo’s mother is dead now, but in the way that many daughters seek to heal something our mothers lacked, “Three Women” burns a flare-bright path through the dark woods of women’s sexuality. In sentences that are as sharp — and bludgeoning, at times — as an ax, she retains the accuracy and integrity of nonfiction but risks the lyrical depths of prose and poetry. Describing a threesome: “A wife who closes her eyes to the first move. A third woman who has eaten nothing all day. Someone turns on the music. Someone pours a drink. Someone reapplies lipstick. Someone positions her body in such a way. … Someone closes a French door. Someone’s stomach drops. It is everything to do with bodies and it is nothing at all to do with bodies.” The balance here, and throughout “Three Women” — between what is researched, remembered and dreamed into being by collaboration of author and subject — is a dazzling achievement.
Taddeo embedded herself for eight years with three different women, capturing in rotating chapters their relationships, sexual preferences, lust, obsessions and, in some cases, rapes and trials, literally and figuratively. The word “embedded,” used in the jacket copy but also usually associated with reporters who experience combat alongside soldiers, is no accident. Sex is a war, at least some of the time. With ourselves, with men, with a grand perception that women’s desire is a side dish to male desire, or best ignored altogether, especially when it’s not hetero monogamy.
“Three Women” isn’t comprehensive — these women are all white, with only one who’s sexually intimate with women too — but it’s still a Technicolor roil of experience and fantasies, all potent with the seesawing dynamics of power. There’s Maggie in North Dakota, who as a high school student gets ensnared in a relationship with her popular English teacher, Aaron Knodel, and eventually levels felony charges against him (this is the only story with real names). In Indiana, Lina, trapped in a loveless marriage, starts an obsessive affair. Sloane, bred to please men in every way, runs a seaside Rhode Island restaurant with her chef husband who plucks out people for his wife to sleep with, with or without him.
For the duration, the reader becomes these women. Taddeo’s presence as narrator only occupies an author’s note, plus a short prologue and epilogue. Otherwise, she disappears into the characters, describing their experiences in such intimate third-person that her collapsing is our collapsing too.
Sometimes the identification that can occur with the story can be almost nauseating. The descriptions of Maggie and Aaron’s lust and all his manipulative rules (erase all text messages, never contact him first) have the effect of plunging the stomach. This girl is so clearly headed for a devastating wound. He exploits her troubling home life for all the hero worship he can wring out of her. Maggie’s version of events is in striking contrast to what the courts decided. In many ways, her story can be read as the cathartic last say of a survivor.
Desire, because it can be a messy and desperate animal need, can be excruciating to witness. When Lina gets a “what u into” text message from her lover, she scrambles to line up a babysitter, speeds off to meet him, runs into a hotel only to leave minutes later, and then arrives at the liaison as eager as ever and only a little vexed that he didn’t respond to her Facebook messages earlier in the week. Sex ensues in graphic detail. Lina, married to a man who doesn’t like to kiss her, is a woman deprived of oxygen. She has finally broken the surface to gulp air. She’ll be slowly suffocating until she sees her lover again, a precarious position that Taddeo could have probed at more directly. What’s the end game for a financially dependent woman with two children having an affair with a guy who calls her “Kid”?
The most empowered story, at first glance, is Sloane’s. Sloane’s open marriage is described as happy, and it’s certainly sexually adventurous, but the more her story opens up, the more we question the arrangement. Her submissiveness seems to have her trapped in a pattern of valuing men’s pleasure above her own. How long can a couple healthfully sustain such an unequitable ratio? A straight answer to this query, even a notion of one, could have provided more clarity. Taddeo’s poetics of desire are gorgeous, but they occasionally obscure the trail she so brilliantly blazed through the trees.
Avid Reader Press, 320 pp., $27
Wappler is the author of “Neon Green” and a former co-host of the Pop Rocket podcast.