I know a book is good when I start photographing its pages to send to my friends. How could I read something like this, I’ll find myself asking, alone when it so clearly needs to be discussed? Book clubs exist to drink wine, sure, but they exist more for that lingering question a book plants at the base of your skull that gives you a headache; the question that asks you: is that how it really is? or that confirms to you that, absolutely, of course it is.
I was lucky enough to receive a galley of Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women, which is out today from Avid Reader. I should have known that it would be good because it is the first book the imprint has published, a defining book you might say. I should have known it was good because the note the publicist sent didn’t say she hoped I would like it it said she hoped I would “share how I felt about it.” She did not mention that sending me a galley copy of this book was akin to torture. Only one of my friends had read it. I begged others in media to email for a galley as well. I needed to discuss. I needed to gossip. I needed to whine with envy.
Here is the thing about Three Women: it’s non-fiction. The book is built on a decade of reported work by Taddeo following (you guessed it) three women as they explore and try to understand their own desires. One is a young woman in the middle of a court case against the high school teacher she claims she was in a relationship with while she was still a student. One is a young mom dissatisfied in her marriage and still crushing on a high-school sweetheart. One is in a marriage where sex every day is not only the norm, but the expectation.
It would be easy to assume that part of the reason this book is getting tons of publicity and plenty of recommendations (including this one) is because it has the support of the publisher, and a literally sexy topic. But I am writing about it today because it is a book that filled me up from the bottom with awe that quickly fermented into envy.
Let’s look at some good fucking writing:
“Back at home she fixes lunch for him, oftentimes it’s dinosaur chicken nuggets that she puts in a big clean oven that looks like a new marriage and Danny presses his face up agains the door of the oven and watches them turn from yellow to brown. She kneels behind his small body and puts her hands on his cotton shoulders and says, Look at those nuggets cook!”
“When you’re young you can do almost anything and it won’t be sad.
“You wear wedge boots, leggings, and a sheer kimono top. You want him to know he is not dealing with a child anymore. You are twenty-three.
Of course, you also want him to want you still, to lament what he lost. You want him to sit at the dinner table later, meditating on the smiling bone of your hip.
“He used to suck your tongue into his mouth as if he wanted another tongue”
“Maggie knows that women like her are watchful because they wish to protect their routines, two incomes and two parents for two children and the platinum-level Costco membership.”
What’s harder to praise with quotes, though, is something Taddeo does that I didn’t even realize was happening until I got more than halfway through. As the book progresses, Taddeo’s voice disappears into the women she is writing about. As their chapters flip back and forth we hear not the rhythm of Taddeo’s interjection but the rhythm of Maggie and Lina and Sloane. This book is an undeniably beautiful feat of reporting, but what’s more is that it is one of the few non-fiction books that claims to be “written like a novel” and then actually does that. You have to spend 10 years reporting something to be able to write like your sources are people you actually know. There is no distance left between Taddeo and these women and we, the readers, reap the emotional cadence that work delivers.
We live in a modern age when women do talk about sex, when Cosmopolitan is one of the best selling magazines in America and the second-wave of feminism never really crested. Sex-positivity is a huge stance of modern-day American women. Though, of course, there is huge pushback against women having sex, Taddeo’s work gets at something more innate in the debates over women’s purity. The problem isn’t the sex having, but what produces that: desire, horniness, want. Because these women are real people (and because Taddeo is a nuanced writer) we are shown their desire not as something with a single objective. They are often in internal battles with themselves. They want to have an affair, and they also think affairs are wrong. They want to satisfy their husband and be open-minded, but it is also emotionally complicated to have a three-way. They want their high school teacher to be punished for seducing them, and they recognize their desire for him still.
Three Women is complicated, as all the best books are. Three Women does not tell you what to believe. It does not tell you who is right and who is wrong. It simply displays the lives of a few American women as fully as it can, and in the wake of its emotional whirlwind it asks of you only one question: what exactly do you want?