Devouring Three Women by Lisa Taddeo, this summer’s most talked about book, has left a bad taste in my mouth. For eight years Taddeo followed the relationships of three American women – Maggie, Lina and Sloane – with the goal of uncovering ‘vital truths about women and desire’. Taddeo’s initial plan was to study a larger group of women but finding volunteers (the level of intimate details in this book would make the bravest of women shy away) proved tricky. That’s a shame as these three stories, captivating as they are (Taddeo is a superb storyteller), surely represent only a small sub-section of female sexual experience. So that begs the question: what is the point of this book?
I guess the project itself is self-selecting in that only women with a story to tell would feel compelled to participate, and interesting stories are rarely happy stories. All these three women are vulnerable in differing ways. Maggie struggles with alcoholic parents. Lina was gang raped in high-school. Even Sloane, who appears to thrive in an open marriage, is haunted by a tricky family history and bulimia.
The stories themselves are for the most part heart-breaking. A popular teacher abusing his love struck, underaged pupil. A love starved woman turning to an old friend for sex who in turn treats her despicably. A glamorous waitress who shares her husband with other women or men or has sex with other men while her husband watches. Sloane’s marriage, Taddeo says, is one of the happiest she’s seen. I couldn’t help wondering about Sloane’s own happiness. If judgement were to be passed on the basis of these three stories, we could safely conclude that all men are jerks and all women lack agency. We all know that’s not true.
For me, reading Three Women was a bit like watching a Jeremy Kyle show, you know you shouldn’t revel in the salacious details of people’s misery, but you can’t look away. Like many books about sex, it’s addictive stuff and will sell like hot cakes. Which makes me suspect that Taddeo and her publisher, knowing full well that the book was not what it was intended to be, saw this as way to monetise eight years of research and make a killing in the process.
An addictive read it might be, but an investigation of female desire and a ‘feminist classic’, as some reviewers have coined it, it ain’t.
Three Women by Lisa Taddeo is published by Bloomsbury Circus, 320 pages.