I decided to pick up this book by Lisa Taddeo after a friend of mine said she read it and found it fascinating. I don’t know if I’d say she enjoyed it, since it’s not exactly the type of book that’s meant to be enjoyed, but she made it sound compelling enough that I decided to request the audiobook from my library. I highly recommend the audiobook since it has a different narrator for each woman and I liked all the narrators.
The book is very aptly titled because it really is about three women. The author mentions in the beginning that she started out by being fascinated with men’s desire because it’s often portrayed as this overwhelming urge over which they have absolutely no control and for which they regularly throw away careers they have worked for years (even decades) to develop. So she started researching them, but as she did, she found the stories of the women in their lives more compelling, so she ended up studying them instead. To complete this book, she conducted a whole lot of correspondence with each of the three women and even moved for a while to the towns in which they lived to be closer to them, have greater access to them for interviews, and get a better sense of what their lives looked like. All their names were changed to protect their privacy and other women started to talk to Taddeo about their experiences and then backed out.
The three women are: Maggie, who had an affair with her English teacher when she was in high school; Lina, a divorcée who’s carrying on an affair with a married man; and Sloane, a married woman who regularly has sex with other men, sometimes with her husband, sometimes without him but while keeping him updated via video or text, because seeing her with other men turns him on.
The theme running through these three women’s stories is that, while they all have their own desires and urges, their desires are regularly subordinate to the desires of the men in their lives. Maggie’s English teacher initiates their relationship and insists that he must be the one to initiate all contact with her to avoid having his wife see any texts from Maggie and get suspicious, which is exactly what happens the one time Maggie texts him first to wish him a happy birthday and that ends up being the end of their relationship. Watching him manipulate her and slowly distance her from her friends was horrifying and I think it was made even more horrifying by the fact that Maggie had no idea he was doing it.
Lina started dating a cute guy she had a crush on, named Aaron, in high school, but one night she went to a party where someone slipped something into her drink so the three boys there could rape her. The story that went around the next day was that she was a slut who had slept with three boys in the same night and that was the end of her relationship with Aaron.
Fast forward a decade or so and now she’s married to another man, they have two young kids, but he has stopped having sex with her and even refuses to kiss her, even though it’s something she tells him she needs. They hire the worst marriage counselor in the world who tells Lina that it’s normal for some people not to like to kiss without addressing the fact that sometimes you need to do things you don’t want to do for the person you love if you care about the relationship.
After Lina and her husband have gone three months without having sex, Lina decides to leave him. Around this same time, she reconnects with Aaron, who is also married to a woman he does not love (or at least to a woman he tells Lina he does not love) and they begin to have an affair.
Lina’s story is framed by the fact that she talks about all this to her book group, which is made up entirely of women who apparently judge her for being happy. Taddeo mentions the fact that women are often resentful of other women who are happy, but when she describes Lina’s situation, it’s hard to imagine that she’s truly happy. She says she’s in love with Aaron, but he repeatedly tells her he doesn’t have feelings for her and their time together is completely dictated by his schedule and his desire. When he’s in the mood, Lina (a mother of two young children) is expected to drop everything and race to him before the mood leaves him. She contorts herself into all kinds of different shapes based on the kind of woman she thinks he wants at that moment just to get him to come to and stay with her. She’s intensely grateful to him for what little time he does spend with her while he completely takes her for granted and strings her along. Is that what happiness for a woman looks like?
You might think Sloane is the one who’s the most sexually liberated, since she’s the one who’s having extramarital sex with her husband’s permission, but it’s not with his permission so much as at his request because he’s the one who picks her partners for her. Involving other people in their sex life wasn’t Sloane’s idea, it was his, and he’s the one who dictates how, when, where, and with whom it all happens.
At one point Sloane reads the Fifty Shades trilogy, thinks it sounds similar to what she’s doing with her husband, and decides that means she’s sexually liberated. How she came to that conclusion, I don’t know. I haven’t read the trilogy, but I don’t remember hearing anything about the main couple including other people in their sex life, and according to Roxane Gay, the books were very focused on the woman’s sexual pleasure, which, as previously stated, Sloane’s husband does not appear to be.
I thought Sloane’s use of those books to justify the nature of her sex life was very interesting given that those books started as Twilight fan fiction and Maggie’s favorite book was Twilight and Maggie (and her teacher) used it to justify having an affair with an older man.
The thing I found most disturbing about this book was the number of times the women said they did something they didn’t want to do or didn’t do something they wanted to do because they wanted the man to stay with them, they wanted to be liked, they wanted the man to think they were “cool”, they didn’t want to “spook” the man. All three of them repeatedly talk like this throughout the book and when you hear it over and over in a fairly short time period, it reinforces just how gross it is that society constantly expects women to cater to what men want so we can get a tiny shred of something that looks a little bit like happiness.
What did you read/listen to this week? Anything else you found enlightening but also intensely disturbing?