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Women Are from Venus

A new study of female desire rehashes old truisms about women and sex

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo. Avid Reader Press, 306 pages.

If facts have lost their power to change the discourse, perhaps there’s something weightier about ones that come wrapped in the methods of fiction. This has been the hope behind nonfiction narratives such as Common Ground, Random Family, and Behind the Beautiful Forevers. These books invite us into private experiences—of busing and integration in Boston, poverty and the drug trade in the Bronx, or survival and aspiration in a Mumbai slum, respectively—that have been more obscured than illuminated by public debate. But writing a true story as rich with detail as a novel requires immersive research. The rare successes become staples of J-school syllabi.

The latest book seeking to enter this canon—so explicitly that its publisher invokes the authors of the classics above—is Three Women by Lisa Taddeo, a writer of both fiction and magazine features who spent eight years with her characters and in two cases moved to the towns where they lived. Taddeo’s chosen terrain is perhaps the most private of all: not sex, exactly, but the intangible mess of desire that leads to it—in particular, the desires of women, who are usually frowned upon for wanting at all.

The subject drew her in part because she wanted to understand the enigma of her mother, a woman who didn’t appear to have any desires. To her daughter, it seemed “that her sexuality was merely a trail in the woods, the unmarked kind that is made by boots trampling tall grass. And the boots belonged to my father.” Her dying advice to Taddeo was to follow her example and hide her true self from both women and men: “Don’t let them see you happy.”

It doesn’t come as news that our society seeks to punish women who pursue what they want. Nor is Taddeo breaking ground when she notes that it’s usually women who pay the price for the desires of men. (See: Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh.) Still, a story that could entice a wide audience to consider these patterns—and feel pain for their victims—might belong on a shelf with the titans of the genre. Unfortunately, despite the sensitivity Taddeo shows her subjects, this book hits a sour note when it attempts to make meaning from their lives. In her eagerness to remind us that, for all of feminism’s supposed gains, most people still live under a rigid sexual regime, Taddeo seems oddly scornful of the idea that it could be otherwise. “There are two Americas,” she writes. “There are men and there are women and one still rules the other in certain pockets of the country, in moments that are not televised.”

As if selected to demonstrate the power that stories can have, the women of Three Women understand their longings through the lenses of popular movies and novels. Lina, an unloved housewife in Indiana who begins an affair with her high school sweetheart, wants to be kissed like Buttercup in The Princess Bride. Sloane, an elegant restaurateur in Rhode Island, is unsure how to feel about her husband’s hunger to watch her have sex with other people—until the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy makes their kink seem both normal and exciting at once.

And then there is Maggie, who was a high school student in North Dakota when she allegedly entered a sexual relationship with her teacher. She says that she lent him her favorite book, Twilight, and he returned it bristling with post-its comparing them to Bella and her centenarian vampire. “Without conditions, like our love!” read one annotation. Unlike Taddeo’s other subjects, Maggie has told her story before—in court, where the jury didn’t believe her, or believed that she deserved the pain that Aaron Knodel had caused her. “He is a great teacher, with a family,” some North Dakotans tell Taddeo. “He doesn’t deserve to have his life wrecked over this.” But Taddeo relates events firmly from Maggie’s perspective: “Imagine a girl,” she writes, “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 favorite love story. For the rest of your life, nothing will taste like this.

Confusingly, Taddeo seems at points to agree that it is only women, not men, who are equipped to carry the moral and emotional weight of relationships.

Taddeo is right to dwell on the incredible unfairness of a sexual politics that accords men all the desire and women all the responsibility for shutting down their advances—and then the blame for the sex itself, whether or not they resist. When Lina and her lover were teenagers, he abandoned her after she was raped by three boys, an assault that made her untouchable: whatever the circumstances, the town’s view “is that Lina fucked three guys in one night.” When Sloane and her husband start sleeping with an employee of their restaurant—a conquest he chooses—it’s Sloane who ends up the target of the man’s girlfriend’s ire. “You’re the woman,” his partner shouts at her. “And you let this happen.”

But confusingly, Taddeo seems at points to agree that it is only women, not men, who are equipped to carry the moral and emotional weight of relationships. It’s not always clear whether her intent is to critique this imbalance, or to describe it as not only operative but immutable. “Perhaps Sloane was being sexist, in a way, but she knew men could be selfish,” Taddeo writes. “As long as certain needs of theirs were being met, they didn’t consider the cost. It had been up to Sloane, as a woman, to make sure the other woman was in the fold.”

This is not simply a reporter’s faithful ventriloquism of her subject: a similar passage appears in the book’s first-person prologue. When Taddeo began her research, she says, she was also interested in writing about men, drawn to the stories of powerful patriarchs who gamble their legacies for an illicit tryst. The simplest explanation might be that, until recently—and, in many cases, still—men regularly got away with cheating on their wives and assaulting their subordinates; the risk was usually rewarded. But Taddeo takes a different view. “Men did not merely want,” she writes. “Men needed.” This deterministic understanding of male desire is what turned her off of it as a subject. “Whereas the man’s throttle died in the closing salvo of the orgasm, I found that the woman’s was often just beginning,” she writes. “There was complexity and beauty and violence, even, in the way the women experienced the same event.”

One problem with this assertion is that it follows that men can’t help what they do—and therefore that women, as the only ones with agency, are no better than seducers unless they save those men from themselves. This ends up hurting the Maggies of the world, though that is far from Taddeo’s intent. After a night when Maggie says that Knodel invited her to his house and went down on her while his wife was out of town, she recalls that he texted her, “Had you called me Mr. Knodel, I probably would have stopped everything right then”—as if she were at fault for not doing so. She tells Taddeo that they didn’t have sex because she wasn’t eighteen. But “if you had just unbuttoned my pants, it would have happened,” she says he also texted, as if this were her fault, too.

The other problem with Taddeo’s schema is who it neglects to include. Not only men for whom desire arrives wrapped in “complexity and beauty and violence, even,” or women who just want to get off (though Taddeo does acknowledge that “female desire can be just as bullish as male desire”). But also men who desire men, women who desire women, people who are not men or women and the people who they desire. It’s hard to tell a story that can “stand for the whole of what longing in America looks like” through three subjects who are all white, cisgender, and primarily engaged in straight relationships (Sloane sleeps with women as well as men). Though the women do come from diverse class backgrounds—Maggie’s upbringing is “hardscrabble” while Sloane describes her father with the words, “Andover, Princeton, Harvard”—two are Catholic.

This is not to say that Taddeo was obligated to recruit a fully representative group; with a sample size of three, that would hardly be possible. And it’s true that, in at least one of Taddeo’s “two Americas,” the official line does insist that there are men and there are women, and they exist in a particular relationship to one another. But to repeat this is to reinforce the sins of the dominant narrative, ignoring the diversity of desire that exists on either side of any American divide.

Taddeo earned remarkable access to the inner lives of her subjects, and their everyday seductions become as suspenseful as the novels they love when told in her breakneck, present tense prose. But in the best works of nonfiction, the writer doesn’t have to reach to make the lives under the microscope represent something larger. To present the stories told here as a synecdoche for the state of female desire asks too much of them. To present them without comment, as Taddeo does on most of the book’s three hundred-plus pages, is perhaps asking too little. This approach may be calculated to circumvent readers’ political instincts, but it forecloses a powerful avenue of inquiry. That the book contains no mention of Trump, #MeToo, or other recent upheavals makes its women feel a little like residents of a Twilight Zone—one where the reactions to local sexual intrigue don’t exist in a feedback loop with the fulminations of pundits on Fox News.

The other problem with Taddeo’s schema is who it neglects to include.

Three Women is at its best when it undermines its own premise, allowing stories to feel contradictory, demonstrating that there is no single female sexuality. One person, in the span of one heartbeat, can both want something and not want it; can be liberated and destroyed by a single desire. Take Lina, in love with her high school sweetheart but aware that he only wants to have sex with her. Before one encounter, she buys his favorite brand of cigarettes, American Spirit, as part of her never-ending effort to bind them closer. After they have sex in her car, she jokingly requests $6 for the pack, but as he’s driving away, she chases him down and tries to return the money. It’s a cryptic defiance, as if she wants him to know that he has nothing on her, but also everything—that, try as he might, he can’t keep things between them transactional.

Sometimes, Lina admits that her Prince Charming is a sad schmuck who will never leave his wife—but even then, she doesn’t want to want him less. It’s enough that he “made her veins hot,” Taddeo writes. “She could no longer see the end of her life clearly, she could no longer picture the grayness of the earth she would be buried under and the road the hearse would take to get her there. And that was more living than she’d done in her whole life.”

Like Lina’s gesture, Taddeo’s intentions feel indeterminate. At times, she seems ready to set fire to the idea of desire on which this book is built. “I think about my mother’s sexuality and how she occasionally used it,” she writes. “The little things, the way she made her face up before she left the house or opened the door. To me, it always seemed a strength or a weakness, but never its own pounding heart. How wrong I was.” If Three Women had more fully embraced that ambiguity, it might have ended up surer about what it had to say.