This is one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read.
On the surface, Three Women is a look at the sex and love lives of three women. It’s actually about passion and power and more often than not, the abuse of power.
Lisa Taddeo crossed America six times to find the women whose lives she portrays, she chose them on their ability to be open and honest.
That led to her picking Maggie, Lina and Sloane.
Maggie is in her 20s, we meet her on the day she is due to come face to face in court with her former married teacher with whom she had an affair with whilst she was a student – though we only have her part of the story.
In the years since, Maggie has struggled with after affects, in her teenage mind, it was love. It wasn’t, she was groomed by a man she trusted, who saw her vulnerability and used it. Now in her 20s she’s decided to report it after seeing the man in question named as North Dakota’s teacher of the year. Maggie’s chapters are based on her memories and the court case, which, has a depressingly, predictable outcome.
Maggie’s decision to go public results in her being judged, name called and a debate around consent:
“Many people, men and women alike, who otherwise accepted Maggie’s truth, said to me, ‘Well she wanted it. She asked for it’. But to me Maggie Wilken did not ask for it. She accepted it, the way any child accepts a 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”. Lisa Taddeo
There’s no doubt that Maggie was a child, she likened her relationship to Twilight, the evidence used in the case features around the book and notes that he’d left for her in it. She came from home that, although rich in love, had its problems, both parents were alcoholics, struggling to get by. This was a lonely girl desperate to be loved and that seeped into everything she and did.
What happened to her at school broke her and her family, the final chapter about Maggie left me feeling sad for her, that she’d essentially shut herself off at such a young age:
“But Maggie is quiet, distant, measured. She has learned not to show much to anyone anymore. Anything she says can and will be used against her”. Lisa Taddeo
Lina is in her 30s, she’s married with two children, she’s unfulfilled. Her husband refuses to have sex with her, he also won’t kiss her. She longs to be kissed passionately, they’ve gone to couples counselling and she’s aghast when said counsellor doesn’t agree with her on the whole kissing thing.
They separate and she embarks on an affair with her old high school boyfriend. She’s romanticised him to an unhealthy extent, despite the fact he broke up with her for a very, very shitty reason (and that’s putting it mildly).
Lina recounts her story at a weekly women’s group, where the others live vicariously through her and judge her at the same time. She will go to any lengths for this man, it isn’t reciprocated, and she knows that.
“And the truth is – Lina knows it in clear moments on clear days – he thinks of her only when it’s convenient and when he’s drunk and when he’s bored and when there is a perfect storm of possibility. When he can see her easily and not risk being caught or being in trouble with work or wating too much gas. But even then, he won’t mind if he doesn’t. Even then he can take it or leave it. This is crushing but Lina accepts it”. Lisa Taddeo
Lina is too eager to please, desperate and sad.
Finally, we have Sloane a woman in her 40s, she and her husband are swingers, she’ll have sex with men and women that he chooses for her.
Out of three, Sloane is the most in control, she’s confident in her marriage, accomplished, she’s got her stuff together, yet still I couldn’t help but wonder if her marital arrangements were something she actually enjoyed or if she was still just trying to please her husband.
It’s Sloane who takes all the blame when, predictably, one of their arrangements goes wrong. She realises that a favourite extramarital partner hasn’t told his partner what he is doing. When she finds out, it is Sloane who is confronted. “You’re the woman,” she tells her. “And you let this happen.” Sloane’s husband had encouraged it, and it bothers her that she takes the flack.
Sloane is damaged too, having suffered bouts of bulimia growing up, she feels the pressure to perform and fit into perfect roles seamlessly – something she always managed. As we get to know more about her there’s a theme of her feeling unloved by her parents. She talks about abandonment and the fact no one told her they were pleased she survived a car crash as a teenager.
For all her talk of feeling contented with life, I wasn’t so sure. She didn’t really have friends, in fact, it felt as though the only person she had in the world was her husband.
Now, I started this blog by saying this is one of the most interesting books I’ve read, and it is. However, that’s not to say I don’t have a few problems with it.
I liked the fact it looked at desire through the eyes of women. I still think, in many ways, women are taught from an early age to ‘behave properly’, and female desire is by and large ignored by society, it’s not something we talk openly about and it can feel like it is seen as ‘dirty’. Think about for a second…a woman who sleeps around is still called a slut; a man is still a hero. It’s even shown in this book through Sloane, it is her that’s in the wrong. We can look at the whole Dominic West, Catherine Fitzgerald, Lilly James saga – the narrative being that it’s Lilly James who’s the most in the wrong.
The problem I have with this book is that they’re all in exploitative situations. On the surface each woman is different, but the same theme runs through their stories, they’ve all to a greater or lesser degree experienced sexual trauma, they’re all desperate to please and desperate to be loved and it feels a bit one dimensional in places.
I’d have liked to have seen at least one healthy sexual relationship depicted (it says something that the healthiest one is between the swingers). Not all men are exploitative, not all women are damaged. In some areas this book can feel like a warning to women ‘your desire will lead you to nothing but trouble’ and that’s not always the case, I would have like to have seen this depicted.
It took eight years of research and writing, at the end of it we have a book about, heartbreak, infatuation and the emotional impacts of sex.
Taddeos’ subjects aren’t always likeable, their choices questionable but that’s the point, they’re human and who are we to judge?
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