Avid Reader Press, $15.99
In her book Three Women, Lisa Taddeo tells the stories of three women and their relationship to desire by examining the ways they are socialized to obscure their needs and playact around their wants. The three sections are woven together, alternating back and forth. Each narrative has its own distinct voice, with an introduction and epilogue that provide Taddeo’s own family history. Throughout, Taddeo’s language is atmospheric and plunges the reader into the subjects’ worlds: the narratives they tell themselves and recite to others; the secrets they keep; and the pain that they experience and conceal when desire takes the wheel.
There’s Maggie, a teenager who is seduced by her older, married teacher. Lina, who is starved for affection, finds herself drawn to her high school boyfriend because her husband refuses to kiss her. And finally, there’s Sloane, whose husband enjoys watching her have sex with other people. Their stories are by no means comprehensive—all of the subjects are white, cisgender, and identify as mostly heterosexual—and Taddeo is careful to articulate the individual context of each woman, employing achingly specific details to deftly and subtly gesture toward broader truths.
In the Author’s Note on page 7, Taddeo writes “We pretend to want things we don’t want so nobody can see us not getting what we need,” which is something that resonated so deeply with me it nearly stopped my heart. Somewhere in my life, I had absorbed a message: If I do not pay attention, if I am not good, desire might bear her teeth and make me act impulsively. I had the sense that my desire was unbecoming, animalistic, unrefined, selfish. I learned how to pretend to want something I didn’t—usually, it was something a man wanted.
For many years, I lived my life that way. I made myself small, pliant, agreeable. I didn’t know how to want anything, but that didn’t mean I didn’t do anything: I met a man and he wanted to date me and then he wanted to marry me and we had a wedding and I looked beautiful and the whole time, it felt like I was asleep. . . .
I probably don’t need to mention that the women in Taddeo’s book are punished in some way or another for embracing desire. Maggie’s narrative is peppered with compound words such as “lovecrush” and “driftlove.” To me, these words captured and evoked the forward momentum of adolescent emotions, conveying a sense that Maggie is rushing into the future so quickly that her words cannot help but bump into one another. Tree branches are “swollen with ice” in Sloane’s narrative, a detail that might feel too on-the-nose if it didn’t perfectly capture the aching and arrested state of midwinter in the Northeast. Lina’s illicit encounters in cars have the appropriate sense of claustrophobia.
My first marriage failed for many reasons—geography, money, misalignment of life goals—but all of those things were easy to brush aside. Until. I fell in love with someone else, a man I’d known for many years. We were hanging out one night and I looked at him and realized suddenly I had been drowning for years. And at that moment, it was as though my lungs had suddenly filled with oxygen. It felt like fire; it was magnificent; and I blew up my entire life for it.
Desire was clarifying. It forced me to face my needs and compelled me to make a painful decision that I otherwise might have been too afraid to make. Within a few months, my first marriage was over. Eventually, I married that friend, the man who makes my skin come to life.
Three Women makes the case for the inevitability and ferocity of desire. We can deny it for a time, but eventually we’ll have to face who we really are and what we really want. And Taddeo’s book fulfills the promise of that beautifully-rendered truth, told through the prism of three women’s stories.
A few weeks ago, I was lying in bed next to my husband, with my copy of Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women propped open on my lap. I grabbed the small black notebook I keep on my bedside table and wrote my first notes for this review:
Since that evening, I have been thinking a lot about why my brain did that—why it wanted to pair this complex, layered idea with another word, building a barrier around desire.
The more I thought about it, the more I realize that this is something I have done over and over again in my own writing—I put a distancing word in so I don’t have to reckon with what I really mean. What am I afraid of? What would happen if I run with full velocity into the heart of desire instead of keeping it at arm’s length?
There is much to admire in this book, but I didn’t just admire it—I loved it because I related to it deeply. For a long time, I was afraid to tell anyone the story about why my first marriage ended. At the time, I thought no one would understand. I felt so alone and so ashamed. Sometimes, I still do. But Three Women extended a hand to me, inviting me out of my shame. For that, I am grateful.
Bio: Kat Read writes and works at GrubStreet in Boston and is a graduate of their Essay Incubator program. Her essay “The Whale” was a finalist in Hippocampus Magazine‘s 2019 Remember in November Contest for Creative Nonfiction. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Manifest-Station, The Sun – Readers Write, The Hunger, GRLSQUASH, Pangyrus, Brevity Blog, and Prometheus Dreaming. You can find her on Twitter at @KatARead and online at www.kataread.com