Tuesday 15 October 2019

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo is one of those books of the moment, and one that I have actually managed to read during it's moment! And I can see why so much buzz has attached itself to this book.

It's about sex, desire and what it means to be a woman, told from the perspective of three women that Taddeo has spent years and years getting to know. Years and years of trawling through diaries, text messages and legal documents. Years and years of interviews with the three women and their family, friends and colleagues.

It's an extraordinary, personal and universal journey.

One can recognise aspects of one's younger self in each of the women - their thinking, their actions, the external forces that have influenced them. Fortunately most of us (I think) are spared the traumatic episodes that have come to define the lives of the women in this book. Most women I know have had icky episodes in their lives, but another group of women, live with much larger, darker secrets. This is a book about those women.

'And there but for the grace of god go I' was a common refrain that ran through my mind as I read this book. My family has used this phrase all my life, so much so, that we now abbreviate it to a simple 'there but' and the rest of us then automatically, silently, finish the phrase in our heads.

These women were on the other side of this phrase.

Most young women just want to be loved for who they are, messy bits and all. Getting a boyfriend can become such a huge part of our teen years. This desire can often lead to bad choices being made. These young women just want to be accepted, they want to belong. Like boys of the same age, they often want to break out from their parent's world. They want to experiment, have fun and dabble with bad boys, good boys, girls, whoever will show them some love and affection and desire. They want to find their power, even as they can have it taken away by others or as they give it away not realising what it is that they have. The trouble is the trouble that can happen to girls during this phase is often devastating. The double standard still exist and these girls bear the brunt of social scorn, ridicule and censure.

After almost binge reading the first half, I had to put this book aside for awhile. I was starting to feel impatient and annoyed - at the women in the book, at the world we live in, at men who take advantage, at foolish young girls who make bad choices, at families who don't take better care of their teenagers.

A couple of weeks later, I jumped in again. Once again I was utterly absorbed by Taddeo's amazing story-telling  - but there was also a part of me that was repulsed. The roller coaster ride of compulsive empathy followed by pulling away with annoyance was quite exhausting. Exhilarating and exhausting.

So what did I learn?
Or what did I get out of this all-consuming reading experience?

Firstly, that it is possible to find a book utterly engaging, authentic, intricate, insightful, thoughtful, supportive and non-judgemental, yet aggravating at the same time.

Secondly, that it's possible to describe a book as narrative non-fiction at its finest and utterly pointless at the same time. I say pointless, not because I think these women and their desires are pointless, but because I'm not quite sure what Taddeo was hoping to do with the book.

Thirdly, what you get out of this book, will depend on which lens you view it through. A feminist lens will leave you feeling enraged. A diversity lens will leave you feeling disappointed. A psychoanalytical lens will appreciate Lisa's ability to get her three women to reveal so many intimate details about their lives, but I'm not sure anyone of these women could be considered archetypes. A Marxist lens will see class and social inequalities confirmed by the different desires that drive these women.

Finally, I learnt that the beginning, middle and the end of a book can produce very different reader responses, in just the one reader! It was exhausting at times, at other times I empathised and recognised certain universal thoughts and beliefs and at others I wanted to shake them all until I could make them see sense, take control of their lives and stand up for themselves.

I also wondered if the one thing these three women had in common were parents, who despite loving their children, were somehow absent or guilty of not paying close enough attention. Whether it was alcohol, mental illness or emotional distance. As Taddeo says is her Prologue,
how much of what I thought I wanted from a lover came from what I needed from my own mother. Because it's women, in many of the stories I've heard, who have a greater hold over other women than men have.

This is not another book that blames women for the problems of other women. It's rawer than that. And more encompassing. It's life;
the beast of it, the glory and brutality. [The] blood and bone and love and pain. Birth and death. Everything at once.

Three Women was my latest book group choice. It generated lots of discussion, although no-one was prepared to be the first to talk about her desires! And maybe that's why Taddeo wrote this book - as a way to provoke a group of women into talking about desire, love and sex.


  1. I just picked this up from the library but, haven't started it yet. I enjoyed your review - excellent - it makes me want to experience it for myself.

    1. It certainly garners a wide range of opinions - I'll be curious to hear yours :-)

  2. Wow. It sounds an interesting title. As a mom of a 15 and 13 year old daughters, it got to me. Raised by what you mention that the books speaks about, 'absent alcoholic mom', -though not all together unloved-, my husband and I are doing something different for our girls. Not perfect, but different, and based on our christianity, a christianity that has no way to hide. They see us through, and see if we are playing the hypocrite card, or being honest. We have made and will make mistakes, but I'm proud of my husband for being my partner in owing to what we do, for having a direction when it comes to raising girls. And it's still very unfair. I see how good parents unleash their boys to our teen girls with no much thought, all until it's their precious daughter time to be pursued, then they either "lock her up", or become vigilant. However, I see boys who are taught some moral code of conduct by their parents. As you say, women around our daughters who can be models, confidants, leaders, friends, etc., is the best for them to navigate this "jungle", LOL.

    I may read it. Despite that lack of purpose, it may be worth the time.

    1. I grew up as one of four girls, so it has been a curious experience for me to stepmother 2 boys into young men. Trying to strike that right balance between able to handle themselves in a group with other men (on the sporting field, at work, out and about, travelling etc) and being emotionally aware, respectful and considerate of girls. Sadly, I came to realise that many young girls and women also need to get this message. Emotional manipulation is a real issue. The number of girls who alienate/isolate their boyfriends from their friends and family is something a number of my friends are having to deal with.
      Growing up I was too concern with my own safety and that of my sisters, to consider what some of the boys might also be going through. Those manipulative girls were around back then too. I still see some of them playing the same old games 30 yrs later and wonder how on earth the men keep falling for it.

      As you say, we will never get it all right, but trying to be thoughtful, switched on, actively engaged parents is the best we can aim for. Sounds like we're both heading in that direction :-)

  3. Interesting! This one is getting very close to the top of my "currently borrowed and due very soon" stack. I have a feeling that my response will be just as complicated as yours has been!

    1. It's good to read a book that makes things complicated, especially if you're in the mood to analyse the why's and wherefore's.
      Good luck!

  4. Thank you for clarifying how a book can be engaging and yet aggravating at the same time. I was afraid I would find it annoying, so have avoided it thus far.


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