Book review: Three Women

There’s a reason why this blunt, no-holds-barred account of women’s desire and sexuality is talk of the town this summer. It’s frank, powerful and unlike anything I’ve read. Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women has erupted across the literary and media scenes, and is already set to be adapted for a TV series

The three women

Three Women follows the lives of, well, three women. Lina, Maggie and Sloane gave Taddeo unadulterated access into their lives. Taddeo is talented, dedicated and unapologetic. She spent eight years living with these women and immersing herself into their lives. And she’s told three captivating, darkly addictive stories that frame desire in a new light. From Maggie’s court case to Lina’s Facebook messages, readers get to be a fly on the wall in three very different situations. 

I found Maggie’s story the hardest to read: it’s her account of taking her former teacher, no less than North Dakota Teacher of the Year, to court for an affair he started with her as a student. 

“But imagine a girl, who has idealized a fairy-tale love story, reading notes effectively saying, Yes yes, I am your vampire lover and you are my forbidden fruit. We are your favourite love story. For the rest of your life, nothing will taste like this.
Can you imagine?”

Lina’s story is heartbreaking: all she wants is to feel desired, to be kissed and wanted. Her account of balancing societal norms with meeting her desires is one of cruelty and judgement. 

“But I found something to take the pain away and until you have felt my pain, you shouldn’t judge me. Women shouldn’t judge one another’s lives, if we haven’t been through one another’s fires.”

Finally there’s Sloane. Haunted eating disorders and a lack of belonging, she lets her husband live out his desires through her, namely watching her have sex with other men and women. The power plays, judgement calls and (in my opinion) isolation in Sloane’s life feel just as damaging as the student-teacher relationship: in both stories, it’s the women who are to blame. Not the men.

“She was a balance of contradictions, like all subversive girls with rich, cool daddies and crisp, scarved mothers. She was nowhere she was wanted and yet she was everywhere she was desired.”

Nonfiction disguised as fiction 

So, does Three Women live up to the hype? In my opinion, yes. It’s well-written, it carries a strong message and it’s hard to put down. Taddeo knows how to write about sex and desire. Yes, it’s pretty explicit. But it’s rarely cringeworthy, unlike the majority of sex scenes you read. Look at Twitter’s #menwritingwomen then compare it to Taddeo’s writing. And you’ll see how far we have to go before women and their sexuality are properly represented in literature.

Is Three Women the panacea for issues around women’s desire and sexuality? Not quite. My biggest irk with the book was its lack of diversity. All three women seemed to come from very similar backgrounds –  mainly straight, mainly white, mainly middle class Americans. However, the access that Taddeo demanded from her subjects is likely to put people off – as explained in her prologue. I hope this ignites more conversations and a wider narrative that spreads across sexuality, race, culture and country. 

It would also be good to see a woman who’s empowered by her sexuality and her desire. The closest we get to this is Lina, who recognises her need to be touched, and goes out to get it. But she’s not happy; she pines after a man not worth her time. 

Taddeo is clear from the outset: this is a nonfiction account of her exploration into desire. She sets out her thesis, her inspiration and her methodology. But as you start reading the women’s stories, it’s easy to forget that this is real life. Taddeo’s writing style is addictive. She flickers between second and third person; between talking to us as readers and talking to her subjects as people. 

“For some women, preparing to meet a lover is nearly as hallowed a time as the actual meeting. In some cases, it’s better, because at length the lover leaves, or someone loses interest, but the tender moments of anticipation remain. Like the way Lina can more easily remember the beauty of snow falling than the gray slush that lingers”

This book will provoke you. You’ll end up questioning your own life and how you’d react in the shoes of Maggie, Lina and Sloane. It’s brash, bold and powerful – and pretty graphic. Take it from me: if you’re reading this on public transport, you might want to keep an eye out for any sly over-the-shoulder readers. 

“But life knows when to throw in a plot twist. It is an idle but seasoned screenwriter, drinking beers alone and cultivating its archery.”

Three Women is one of the most quotable books ever. Read this with a highlighter in hand – you’ll thank me later. From comments on life and love to male behaviour and women’s judgement, Taddeo has an enviable ability to deftly summarise any and all situations and emotions.

“Part of her narrative poses for the reader the all-too-familiar question of when and why and by whom women’s stories are believed – and when and why and by whom they are not.”

This a brutal, no-holds-barred, occasionally explicit book. But it also shows a surprising level of sensitivity too. In among the blunt phrases and graphic descriptions, Taddeo has a unique way of empathising with these women.

“The main problem for Maggie, which several bystanders observe, is that she is too aggressive. Victims aren’t supposed to be snarly. She is crying, but not torrentially, not as if her vagina were brutalized. She is not crying appropriately.”

Judge and be judged

Taddeo offers these women up on a platter. She puts them up so people can judge their lives, their bad decisions and the moments they take wrong turns. But as readers, are we right to do so? As the saying goes, don’t judge anyone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. And in Three Women, we’re given three pairs of shoes and over 300 pages to journey in them.

This is a lesson in realism. Each woman has what she has. There are no grand moments of self-realisation. No swooping character arcs with an aspirational lift. Instead, it’s a depiction of life. Taddeo shows us that bad situations may get worse, that good relationships may go bad, and as much as you want Prince Charming to appear at the end, how often does that happen in real life?

Here’s one final warning before I sign off: I don’t advise googling Maggie and Aaron. If you do – let me know and we can compare levels of emotional stability/rage. 

“A man will never let you fall completely into hell. He will scoop you up right before you drop the final inch so that you cannot blame him for sending you there.”

Three Women is raw and brash and deserves to be read by all. It’s not perfect by any means – the women all seem of a similar background – but it’s key to igniting an important conversation. Read this if you are a person of any gender, age, nationality. Basically, read it and talk about it. And write more stories, share more experiences. Open up this narrative and make it mainstream.


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