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Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo
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“Every house should have a copy” of this book – “and probably will before too long”, said Megan Nolan in the New Statesman. Eight years in the making, Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women chronicles the sex lives of three American women, all selected because their stories struck a chord. Maggie is a waitress from North Dakota who bears the “dreadful consequences of going public about a teenage affair with her high school teacher”. Lina is a frustrated Indiana housewife who discovers sexual (if not emotional) fulfilment by reconnecting with an old flame. And Sloane is a “glamorous” restaurateur whose husband enjoys watching her have sex with others. Taddeo (above) spent thousands of hours with her subjects, even moving to the towns where they live to gain a deeper understanding of their lives. And it shows: I have never seen female sexuality articulated “quite so plainly”. Three Women is a “once-in-a-generation” work: a “majestic assertion of the existence of women’s desire”.

This book is, in many ways, a “female corrective” to Thy Neighbour’s Wife, Gay Talese’s male-orientated account of 1970s sexual liberation, said Emma Jacobs in the Financial Times. Meticulously reported and “deliciously graphic”, it is rightly being hailed as a feminist classic. Yet it is also, for the most part, a dispiriting read. Taddeo’s subjects may enjoy sex, but they are also imprisoned by it. All internalise men’s views of attractiveness and desire, and all suffer the consequences of being sexual beings. Indeed, rather than exposing the “vast terra incognita of female desire”, what this book reveals is women’s ongoing “fragility and neediness”, said Toni Bentley in The New York Times. The conclusion it points to is far from liberating: that a woman “in love” is “frequently a basket case”.

Taddeo thinks that her stories “convey vital truths” about contemporary sexual mores, said Lucy Scholes in The Daily Telegraph. I’m not sure that this is true. Her subjects are all white, under 40 and predominantly straight. All are women “whose outward compliance belies an unseen churning tumult within” – which Taddeo admits was also the case with her own mother. Her subjects, then, are hardly “universal”. Yet despite such misgivings, I found Three Women “almost impossibly compelling”: it is like Mills & Boon told with the “gravitas and momentum” of a good true crime story. “It shouldn’t work, and on certain levels it doesn’t, yet all the same, it’s the book no one I know can put down, and the one everyone is talking about.”

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