Three Women by Lisa Taddeo is one of those books of the moment, and one that I have actually managed to read during it’s moment! And I can see why so much buzz has attached itself to this book.
It’s about sex, desire and what it means to be a woman, told from the perspective of three women that Taddeo has spent years and years getting to know. Years and years of trawling through diaries, text messages and legal documents. Years and years of interviews with the three women and their family, friends and colleagues.
It’s an extraordinary, personal and universal journey.
One can recognise aspects of one’s younger self in each of the women – their thinking, their actions, the external forces that have influenced them. Fortunately most of us (I think) are spared the traumatic episodes that have come to define the lives of the women in this book. Most women I know have had icky episodes in their lives, but another group of women, live with much larger, darker secrets. This is a book about those women.
‘And there but for the grace of god go I‘ was a common refrain that ran through my mind as I read this book. My family has used this phrase all my life, so much so, that we now abbreviate it to a simple ‘there but‘ and the rest of us then automatically, silently, finish the phrase in our heads.
These women were on the other side of this phrase.
Most young women just want to be loved for who they are, messy bits and all. Getting a boyfriend can become such a huge part of our teen years. This desire can often lead to bad choices being made. These young women just want to be accepted, they want to belong. Like boys of the same age, they often want to break out from their parent’s world. They want to experiment, have fun and dabble with bad boys, good boys, girls, whoever will show them some love and affection and desire. They want to find their power, even as they can have it taken away by others or as they give it away not realising what it is that they have. The trouble is the trouble that can happen to girls during this phase is often devastating. The double standard still exist and these girls bear the brunt of social scorn, ridicule and censure.
After almost binge reading the first half, I had to put this book aside for awhile. I was starting to feel impatient and annoyed – at the women in the book, at the world we live in, at men who take advantage, at foolish young girls who make bad choices, at families who don’t take better care of their teenagers.
A couple of weeks later, I jumped in again. Once again I was utterly absorbed by Taddeo’s amazing story-telling – but there was also a part of me that was repulsed. The roller coaster ride of compulsive empathy followed by pulling away with annoyance was quite exhausting. Exhilarating and exhausting.
So what did I learn?
Or what did I get out of this all-consuming reading experience?
Firstly, that it is possible to find a book utterly engaging, authentic, intricate, insightful, thoughtful, supportive and non-judgemental, yet aggravating at the same time.
Secondly, that it’s possible to describe a book as narrative non-fiction at its finest and utterly pointless at the same time. I say pointless, not because I think these women and their desires are pointless, but because I’m not quite sure what Taddeo was hoping to do with the book.
Thirdly, what you get out of this book, will depend on which lens you view it through. A feminist lens will leave you feeling enraged. A diversity lens will leave you feeling disappointed. A psychoanalytical lens will appreciate Lisa’s ability to get her three women to reveal so many intimate details about their lives, but I’m not sure anyone of these women could be considered archetypes. A Marxist lens will see class and social inequalities confirmed by the different desires that drive these women.
Finally, I learnt that the beginning, middle and the end of a book can produce very different reader responses, in just the one reader! It was exhausting at times, at other times I empathised and recognised certain universal thoughts and beliefs and at others I wanted to shake them all until I could make them see sense, take control of their lives and stand up for themselves.
I also wondered if the one thing these three women had in common were parents, who despite loving their children, were somehow absent or guilty of not paying close enough attention. Whether it was alcohol, mental illness or emotional distance. As Taddeo says is her Prologue,
how much of what I thought I wanted from a lover came from what I needed from my own mother. Because it’s women, in many of the stories I’ve heard, who have a greater hold over other women than men have.
This is not another book that blames women for the problems of other women. It’s rawer than that. And more encompassing. It’s life;
the beast of it, the glory and brutality. [The] blood and bone and love and pain. Birth and death. Everything at once.
Three Women was my latest book group choice. It generated lots of discussion, although no-one was prepared to be the first to talk about her desires! And maybe that’s why Taddeo wrote this book – as a way to provoke a group of women into talking about desire, love and sex.