Book of the week
(Avid Reader, $27)
“For anyone who thinks they know what women want,” said Lea Carpenter in Time, “this book is an alarm, and its volume is turned all the way up.” Lisa Taddeo’s detailed report on the sex lives of three American women strives to capture the contours of female desire, and “if you think her topic sounds a little louche,” you might be surprised by how the stories read. So little of the author’s hand shows, the reader feels that these women—all white, under 45, and at least primarily straight—are directly conveying their inner thoughts. Though sex acts are described on many pages, “it’s the literary brilliance of the book that will knock you back.” In the end, the recollection of desires and their consequences becomes, for each woman, inextricable from her understanding of herself.
Three Women is hardly the definitive book on female desire, said Parul Sehgal in The New York Times. Of the hundreds of women Taddeo initially interviewed, the three she chose to shadow turn out to be, like the author’s mother, inclined to docility, allowing men to dictate their sex lives. Maggie, from North Dakota, was seduced by a high school teacher; Lina, from Indiana, only has sex when her married ex-boyfriend can squeeze in a secret tryst; and rich, pretty Sloane, from Rhode Island, lets her husband choose men for her to sleep with while he watches. That’s a narrow demographic, apparently chosen because Taddeo is pessimistic about how the balance of power between genders plays out in the bedroom. But in a work studded with “odd homilies” and “truly terrible metaphors,” Taddeo’s grim outlook is also redeeming. This florid, “sometimes inexcusably clumsy” book is at the same time “bracing, bleak, and full of nagging questions about why it remains so difficult for some women to name—let alone pursue—their desires.”
Maybe the problem is that female desire resists definition, said Michelle Orange in Bookforum. “Brilliantly observed as drama,” Three Women also challenges you to read its stories without noticing your own page-by-page response to such rare immersion in the intimate lives of real women. She never does isolate the nature of female desire from the cultural expectations that shape the subjects’ yearnings and inspire the reader’s self-consciousness. But that’s OK. “The ultimate satisfactions of Taddeo’s effort lie in the book’s confirmation of the elusive nature of the thing it attempts to describe. In that, it tells a truth as old and vital as they come.” ■