01. Three Women, by Lisa Taddeo

Oof. This BOOK. Three women; eight years; their love and sex and desires meticulously recorded, celebrated, foregrounded. It is, almost unbelievably, nonfiction that – in the very truest sense – reads like a novel; Lisa Taddeo gives her subjects the care and complete focus that we often only give to the people we’ve made up.

The three women she chooses are Maggie, who has an affair with her high school English teacher at fifteen, and at twenty-three decides to seek justice; Lina, who marries the first man who asks, then suffers in the desert of being unkissed and untouched for months on end; and Sloane, who’s thin and hot and rich but whose husband is most turned on by watching her have sex with people he’s chosen for her. They couldn’t possibly be more different, and yet Taddeo seems able to slide into each of their brains with ease. (She is scrupulous, in her prologue, about her sources: she uses text records, phone logs, and court documents where she can, but in situations like Maggie’s–her teacher demanded that she delete every text message sent to, or received from, him–she has had to work with her subject to reconstruct the dynamic from memory.)

The most interesting element of Three Women, for me, is Taddeo’s ability not just to trace the events of eight years or so, but to show how every choice each woman makes, every twinge of desire or dread that she feels, is rooted in experiences from years or decades previously. Maggie’s early years–both her parents alcoholics, their marriage essentially loving but under a good deal of strain–make her intensely vulnerable to the isolation and grooming that Aaron Knodel perpetrates upon her. Sloane’s relationship with her mother, Dyan, a woman who herself was starved of familial love after a car that she was driving killed her own mother, is a kaleidoscope of inherited trauma. Lina’s parents’ apparent inability to take anything she says seriously drives her to cover up her own gang rape (by three friends of her older brother) in high school, then to an increasingly desperate need to have her longings acknowledged as an adult. Their choices are the sums of their lives, but so are their needs, their predilections, their compromises.

You’re likely, I’ll warn you, to come away from this book with the strong conviction that men are worthless toads. None of the featured men treat women well. Aaron Knodel is a weasely paedophile; Lina’s husband Ed is a vague and distant human-shaped meatsack; Aidan Hart–a high school sweetheart with whom she initiates an affair–sees her as an option but never a priority; Sloane’s husband Richard evades all the responsibility for any heartache that their sexual life–based entirely upon what arouses him–causes other couples.

But the point that Taddeo makes, implicitly but with every sentence, is that men aren’t the fulcrum of this book’s interest. It’s called, after all, Three Women. The sheer level of focus and attention, of serious consideration, given to the fantasies and realities of her subjects is almost unprecedented. Lina’s goofy texts to her lover made me cringe with their profound lack of sexiness, but Taddeo never cringes. Maggie’s experiences at Knodel’s trial made me flinch, but Taddeo never flinches. Nor does the book judge Sloane. Such care: is that what we mean by grace?

Three Women is out on 9 July, from Bloomsbury. Man or woman or neither or in-between, you should read it asap.

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17 thoughts on “01. Three Women, by Lisa Taddeo

  1. Wow, quick off the mark with 20 Books of Summer – I haven’t even started my first read yet 🙂 This sounds fascinating. I’m always interested by how writers navigate writing non fiction like this about real people, eg in The Trauma Cleaner.

    1. I cheated a tiny bit and finished this one on the 2nd. It was so compulsive, though! One of the more amazing things about this book is how completely Taddeo erases her own presence; most things are recounted in the third-person present, so it’s like reading a novel that flips between three characters.

  2. This sounds absolutely brilliant. I had thought about requesting an arc but didn’t because I am trying to finally clear my backlog, but I will absolutely have to read this at some point!

    Great review!

    1. In the prologue Taddeo talks about this – she initially followed several other women too, but they were either unwilling or unable to provide the level of access that she needed. (One of them fell in love and was afraid that being shadowed too closely would, I don’t know, jinx it somehow?) Maggie, Sloane and Lina all fit the bill, though. And there’s no sense of exploitation.

  3. I really wasn’t sure about this one at first but I’ve read a couple of convincing reviews now (I think it was a piece in The Guardian that started me looking into it more after I kind of wrote it off initially.) It sounds so interesting, I love that kind of super-immersive storytelling.

    1. I hope you pick it up—the Guardian seemed ambivalent about it (or at least one of their reviewers did), but I do think it’s one of the more inventive and impressive nonfiction books I’ve read for a very long time.

      1. Hmm, maybe it wasn’t theirs then. The review I read praised it highly and laid out some of her process. I had no idea it had taken so many years!

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