Three Women by Lisa Taddeo has been billed as a book about desire, which might suggest something positive or empowering – “I desire x and therefore I shall have it.” It is in fact, quite the opposite.
Taddeo delves into the far-reaching reverberations of particular events in the lives of three women. It is overly simplistic and in fact false, to say that the women’s stories begin with desire of a sexual nature. More accurately, each of the women have complex emotional needs (as a result of rape, sexual assault, a history of self-harming behaviour, cultural expectations, and challenging family circumstances) that are, to a certain extent, expressed in their sexual relationships. I emphasise their emotional needs because as their stories unfold it is painfully clear that what they are seeking (what they ‘desire’) will never be found in the relationships with the (abusive) men they are drawn to.
We pretend to want things we don’t want so nobody can see us not getting what we need.
Taddeo follows the stories of the three women over eight years. Maggie, a teenager growing up in a family with alcoholic parents, has a sexual relationship with a man in his twenties (statutory rape).
Like any young girl who has a crush on someone older, she doesn’t know what she wants to happen. She doesn’t know if she wants sex or no sex… Mostly she just wants a small suggestion of excitement. An anonymous bouquet left on a doorstep.
She is later groomed by a teacher at school; reports what has happened; and experiences the re-traumatisation most victims of sexual assault feel when legal proceedings take over.
He was a good teacher and he cared. Sometimes there’s nothing better on earth than someone asking you a question.
Lina, a girl from a strict Catholic family, is gang-raped while at a high school party. She tells no one. Her subsequent relationships (and infidelity in her marriage) is Taddeo’s focus.
There are two kinds of fifteen-year-old girls, Lina knows, and she belongs to the kind that does more sticker-collecting than French-kissing.
Sloane, well-educated and from a wealthy background, is experienced in fulfilling other people’s expectations – the ‘right’ schools, the ‘right’ friends, the ‘right’ career. Sloane has also had a lifetime of self-harming behaviour and when she marries, her unconventional arrangement with her husband continues her pattern of meeting others’ expectations and self-destructive behaviour (although some will read Sloane’s story as ‘kinky’ or an expression of an ‘open marriage’).
Three Women avoids being voyeuristic because Taddeo bookends the women’s stories with describing an incident in her own mother’s life, and reflects how this may have been experienced by her mother.
There was a beauty to how little my mother wanted. There’s nothing safer than wanting nothing. But being safe in that way, I’ve come to know, does not inure you to illness, pain, and death. Sometimes the only thing it saves is face.
Taddeo shows incredible restraint – it would have been easy to take a firm position from the outset, stating that what happened to Maggie and Lina was criminal and that their stories are about male power not female ‘sexual drive’. Instead, Taddeo states that she “…set out to register the heat and sting of female want so that men and other women might more easily comprehend before they condemn.”
What she delivers is the back story to that ‘heat and sting’. And the back story is not about ‘desire’ and ‘want’, but shame, guilt, loneliness, sadness, and the painful reverberations of single moments (whether they’re worthy of ongoing angst or not is irrelevant). As Lina says, “…something I didn’t understand, barely remembered, had the power to change my whole damn life.” In structuring the book this way, Taddeo forces the reader to examine their own judgements and assumptions about the women.
One inheritance of living under the male gaze for centuries is that heterosexual women often look at other women the way a man would.
Nonetheless, her conclusions about ‘desire’ and power are clear. She notes that many people responded to Maggie’s story with “Well, she wanted it. She asked for it” and states –
…to me Maggie Wilken did not ask for it. She accepted it, the way any child accepts any decoration, ay gift. Women have agency, but children do not. Maggie’s desire for love, for someone to tell her she was a valuable being in the world, was attacked, in the end, for its impudence.
Taddeo’s attention to detail is almost forensic and she includes the details with style (reminding me of The Trauma Cleaner, where it was unquestionably someone else’s story but the author’s reflections on certain facts gave you an alternative perspective). The details give the book richness, elevating it from journalistic story-telling to something far more engaging. For example, of Maggie’s visit to Hawaii, she describes –
One day she hikes to the heart of a secret waterfall. The wild black water rushes from between two halves of a green mountain, like a vibrant truffle. Hawaii is the kind of place where Maggie feels she must always be wearing a bathing suit, as the opportunity to swim might emerge in the middle of traffic.
Three Women reminds us that you never know what is going on for someone. It’s well-written, memorable and its impact lies in showing how single events can shape us.
…on this late November evening eight women drink chardonnay out of plastic cups and eat cashews and Wheat Thins with roasted red pepper hummus.