Well, here I am at ten to one in the morning having completed Three Women. Before I proceed, this book – and so this review – is not suitable for a younger audience. Three Women is at its core, a reportage-novel hybrid about sex and power, which manifests itself in the following trigger warnings: rape, sexual assault, sexual coercion and exploitation of minors. If you may be affected by any of those, don’t read on – and don’t read Three Women.
Lisa Taddeo spent eight years talking to (shocker) three women in the US about their lives – especially about their sex lives. She spoke to their friends and families too, and has, by all means, conducted a piece of research. Three Women is the product of said research, though it is written like a novel from three perspectives. Each chapter belongs to either Maggie, Lina or Sloane. That part is fine.
But, despite all the hype, Three Women is about three, very similar women. They are all white. They are all reasonably well-off. They are all clever. Two of the three women – Lina and Maggie – have been raped, and the other is being borderline sexually coerced, though it’s unclear whether this is actually the case. Sloane is the most irritating ‘character’ I think I’ve ever read besides Winston from 1984. And I hated him. She is so infuriatingly ignorant of her privilege. Sloane’s champagne problems in this novel – i.e. that her husband asks her to have sex with other men in front of him, which she does not hate, but does not love – are fair enough, but also make no sense.
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Taddeo, despite spending eight years chronicling these women’s lives, seems unable to tell Sloane’s story properly. We meet her when she’s rich and young and finding a boy to marry, then next thing we know she’s actually married – with kids. We find out at some point that Sloane’s brother was incestuous once, and that she accidentally crashed a car that killed their mother (I think). It’s all confusing, discombobulated, and stands out like a sore thumb compared to Lina and Maggie’s stories.
So, Lina and Maggie – what’s going on there? Well, Maggie was raped by a 30-year-old man in Hawaii, and everyone slut-shamed her when they found out. She is then groomed, sexually assaulted and coerced by her English teacher, Mr Knodel. This ‘relationship’ lasts a long time, and she is described as being “in love” with him. He tells her he loves her first, and he sticks post-it notes in her copy of Twilight, telling Maggie how her favourite love story is actually just like theirs.
Lina is a married woman who was raped at a party by three boys after her drink was spiked. Miraculously, though, this seems to bear no relevance on her attitude towards life and sex. This is a detail that Taddeo shoehorns in, and there’s no real connection between it and the rest of the story. Anyway, Lina is unhappily married and starts an affair with her teenage love. He is essentially useless and passively cruel, picking her up for sex whenever he wants, and dropping her back down when he’s not into it. We never get a conclusion to Lina’s story, which is one of Three Women‘s many flaws.
Taddeo is a journalist by trade, and boy is that clear. Her writing lacks tact and clarity. Her prose is uncomfortable and nauseating as she creates nouns like “lovecrush” which make absolutely no sense. Taddeo’s general style, made up of nonsensical similes and descriptions so unrealistic I sometimes refuse to believe that this is a work of ‘non-fiction’, is insufferable. The prose gets easier the more you read, and the John Green-ness dies down as Taddeo eventually discusses the actual events in question.
The next issue with Taddeo’s writing is that it just seems pointless. Maggie goes through a criminal trial, recounting every detail of how Mr Knodel groomed and assaulted her. Yet only on the final page of Three Women does Taddeo make a judgement on this story: that Knodel exploited Maggie. The whole time, Taddeo does not challenge the narrative that Maggie was capable of desiring him, and that their relationship was somehow consensual. It was not. A child, as Taddeo eventually says, cannot consent. But that’s the only conclusion we ever get.
I didn’t care that Sloane’s story evaporated into thin air, but as for Lina, I was disappointed. She truly loved her old flame, and I felt that leaping through the page at times.
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Unfortunately, though, Three Women ends with Taddeo saying that the book has been all about female desire and women judging each other. I could not disagree more. While that may have been Taddeo’s aim, her project falls way short of it.
Three Women is actually a book about three white women who aren’t poor, and how men repeatedly exploit and abuse them in one way or another. Their desires are present, but the pulse of them is barely felt. Still to this day, I don’t know what Maggie truly desires, and perhaps in all of her eight years of research, Taddeo should have stopped and asked her that.