At first glance, Three Women might seem a little… gimmicky. Billed as a non-fiction exploration of the sex lives of three “ordinary” American women, journalist Lisa Taddeo’s debut book could easily have slipped into magazine-style voyeurism. But under its cover lies something unexpectedly brilliant. It takes a rare talent to write about sex in a way that is both enthralling and immersive, but never titillating. Three Women is not an erotic book, but a clear-eyed account of women’s sex lives and the experiences that shape them.
Over the course of eight years, Taddeo investigated the sexual histories of three women: Lina, Maggie, and Sloane. Her meticulously detailed reporting evokes Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, drawing upon thousands of hours of interviews and documentation to verify the truth as she presents it to you.
She warns the reader, in her introductory note, that she addresses only the perspectives of the three women in question. She says she silences alternative versions of their facts by necessity, but the counter-narratives, while not explicitly explored, are still acknowledged and done justice. Taddeo works masterfully with point-of-view, shifting between the women’s stories, and even within them, at exactly the right moments.
It takes a rare talent to write about sex in a way that is both enthralling and immersive, but never titillating
What’s most striking, in the broader context, is the way that Three Women interrogates the boundaries of consent. Taddeo details the spiralling life-long consequences of encounters significant and small, those that observe boundaries and those that transgress them.
These are distinctly American stories, with social nuances that might escape readers from other cultures and geographies, but the women are still recognisable. They are brought to life, made concrete, by Taddeo’s intimate narrative, which is, of course, the crucial point. We cannot care in the same way about abstractions.
Sloane’s story felt a little thinner than the others—perhaps only because the life of a beautiful wealthy glamazon is a step further removed, a little less relatable, than the stifled stay-at-home mother and the victimised student. That said, you will inevitably project yourself onto all of the women of this book. You will gasp every time they say something that is heart-wrenchingly familiar, something that you’ve always felt to be true but never seen in print.
Three Women is not an easy read. You will find yourself compelled to turn the pages, but each one of them will be challenging, confronting and complex. By the end, you’ll be left to wonder: what’s next for these three women, and for all of us?
Three Women by Lisa Taddeo (Bloomsbury) is out on July 9