Lisa Taddeo has spent eight years chronicling the erotic lives of three American women: an Indiana homemaker, a Rhode Island restaurateur and a North Dakotan whose accusations of statutory rape resulted in a bruising trial that acquitted her high school English teacher.
Taddeo, a New York journalist, initially thought she might write a book bringing a female perspective to the impulse behind Gay Talese’s notoriously turgid 1981 bestseller “Thy Neighbor’s Wife.” But unlike Talese, who insisted his subjects sign waivers and who published their actual names, Taddeo “changed almost all the names and identifying details” around the two women who “have not already been the subject of public record.”
In this way, Taddeo steps into the murk. She further blurs our understanding of nonfiction by dropping quotation marks and by writing in a second-person voice on Maggie May Wilken, the North Dakota woman: “You want him to sit at the dinner table later, meditating on the smiling bone of your hip.” (The “him” here is Aaron Knodel, the accused English teacher, whom Taddeo does name.)
The author sets her task as bringing heat and urgency to these pages. “It’s the nuances of desire,” she writes, “that hold the truth of who we are at our rawest moments.” No doubt readers who agree will lean in.
“Three Women” does supply a frank exuberance in unpacking lust. It may remind readers of Jill Soloway’s and Sarah Gubbin’s fictional 2017 television series “I Love Dick.” While the Amazon series was funny, Taddeo brings a well-written poignancy in the telling of the sexual adventures, misadventures and travesties of her protagonists.
The book begins with Maggie, whom Taddeo describes as “brash and loud, but she is not cruel or unthinking.” When the married Knodel first invites the schoolgirl to meet him at a Barnes & Noble “she knows she has to be a child and a woman at once and it takes all her energy to satisfy the requirements of each role.” As the “date” wraps up, Maggie “has been quiet and fawnlike, following him through the aisles in not even her best outfit. He will never want to do this again!”
Four years later, when the Teacher of the Year steps into the witness stand, he clutches rosary beads — an astutely selected detail. Throughout Maggie’s nine chapters, Taddeo is unwavering in her molecular attention to her protagonist’s viewpoint. The writer concludes that the trial was a sickening, sexist miscarriage of justice in a backward part of the nation.
Yet the Cass County School Board saw events so differently that it voted unanimously to reinstate Knodel and cover his lost back salary. Taddeo seems indifferent to the reportorial task of asking these officials why.
The writer, who was embedded in North Dakota, doesn’t appear to have a much kinder opinion of rural Indiana. She begins by describing the “browned stink” of meatloaf in the childhood home of “Lina.” She is married to “Ed,” who may or may not be a truck driver. Ed refuses to kiss Lina.
Lina kindles an adulterous flame with her first crush “Aidan,” who is racist and backward but a stupendous kisser. Her erotic predicament is the least interesting of the trio Taddeo serves up.
“Sloane” grew up in Westchester County. “She was a balance of contradictions,” Taddeo gushes, “like all subversive girls with rich, cool daddies and crisp, scarved mothers.” After setting up her restaurant with her chef husband, “Sloane was confident, alpha, abundant yet reserved, partied but went home early enough to be missed.”
Her peccadillo: She liked sex with other men and women while her husband watched. “Three Women” raises the complex question of how representative Taddeo’s subjects are. None completed college. All experienced teenage traumas. Sloane was bulimic and anorexic; Lina was drugged and raped in high school and Maggie, whose parents were alcoholic, bore her father’s suicide alongside the public dismantlement of her reputation during the trial.
Taddeo writes wistfully of subjects who dropped out. But one might ask if the damaged women she did corral were the ones best positioned to give consent. Taddeo’s epigraph quotes Baudelaire; Maggie herself loved “Twilight” and Sloane “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
“Three Women” offers some beautiful sentences, some insights and some sordidness. But nobody hoping for context will find footnotes at the end of this book.