Female desire has been seen as a problem since long before Freud, vexed, wondered what on Earth women want.
Entire vocabularies of insult are devoted to girls and women who dare to proclaim their existence as sexual beings. The protagonists in Lisa Taddeo's new book, Three Women, are not unusual in their complicated sexual histories; what makes their stories revolutionary is the exquisite candor with which Taddeo gives them voice.
In the tradition of Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family or Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Taddeo's book—her first—is a work of deep observation, long conversations, and a kind of journalistic alchemy. Taddeo spent years with the subjects of Three Women, and the investment pays off. As she writes in the book's prologue, "it's the quotidian minutes of our lives that will go on forever, that will tell us who we were," and she seamlessly weaves together everyday details and startlingly intimate moments into narratives that feel as real, as vital, as the pulse in your wrist.
The women she profiles are not diverse in most demographic senses—all are white, for instance—but each inhabits a different life trajectory. There's Sloane, a glamorous and successful restaurateur whose marriage includes sexual relationships with third parties, voyeurism, and a dawning realization (when reading Fifty Shades of Grey) that she is a submissive to her husband's dominant. There's a poor little rich girl aspect to her story. Sloane's privileged childhood included brittle and distracted parents, and by adolescence she was "not only an anorexic-bulimic, but the absolute best anorexic-bulimic she could be." Of the three, Sloane's tale feels the least satisfying, or perhaps the most perplexing, but it also allows Taddeo to practice a lack of judgment that seems almost radical: As long as things are working for all the adults involved, and nobody is being harmed, then sex and relationships can take many forms.
Lina (like Sloane, this is a pseudonym) is also sleeping with someone outside her marriage, but after that their stories diverge. Married for more than a decade to a man who won't kiss her, she loves her children but the rest of her life is suffocating her. "She wishes she could stop caring everything," Taddeo writes. "She wishes she could burn the house down." She reconnects online with her first love, who as a boy in high school had been "strong and hot and extremely quiet so that every time he opens his mouth it's exciting." Years of emotional and physical neglect, during which time she's also developed a panoply of aches and pains, have primed Lina for the glory of their reunion. Their affair is passionate, the attraction magnetic. Aidan is still hot as far as Lina is concerned, still quiet, withholding. He's married, too, and their meetings become an excruciating waiting game, one Lina worries she's losing. "Even in love Lina understands there is competition—a frantic need to be the one who will hurt less than the other." There's a kind of sexual idealism in Lina's yearning, and the reader aches to see what she doesn't, the disregard lurking behind Aidan's laconic "Hey, Kid" when he sees her.