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‘Each Other’s Fires’

Stephanie Sy-Quia
Lisa Taddeo 
Three Women
Bloomsbury
2019
320pp
£16.99

       

               

Lisa Taddeo wants this book to “convey vital truths about women and desire”. It is a work of non-fiction, and a mammoth feat of reporting which lasted eight years and took her from Indiana to Rhode Island and North Dakota. She found her interviewees by sticking flyers on slot machines in New Orleans and reading local newspapers in prairie diners. She spent hours interviewing them; started a discussion group, followed court proceedings, moved to the towns where they lived, and read their sexts. As an undertaking, it recalls Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbour’s Wife (1980), a snapshot of contemporary American sexuality. As Talese then put it to the Washington Post [1], “it’s not condemning, it’s saying this is the way people are. These are ordinary people, they are your neighbours”.

Taddeo’s modus operandi in Three Women is similarly a refusal to condemn. To this end, she gives us Maggie, Lina, and Sloane, selected for their ‘ordinary’ status. (What do you do when you want ‘ordinary’ American women? You find yourself two Midwesterners and a recovering New Yorker, of course.) Maggie is groomed by her teacher aged seventeen (I would question how this bestows ordinariness), Lina is stuck in a touchless marriage, and Sloane’s husband tells her to have sex with other men while he watches. “I based my selection”, Taddeo stipulates, “on what I perceived as these women’s ability to be honest with themselves and on their willingness to communicate their stories in ways that laid bare their desire”. 

Nor did it start as a book about women. Taddeo began by interviewing men, with the wider hope of seeing “what the whole of longing in America looks like”. “I was indeed drawn to their stories the way one is drawn to order the same entrée from a Chinese restaurant menu again and again”, she writes in the prologue, but they “began to bleed together”. She elaborated in an interview with Entertainment Weekly [2]: “there was a lot of ego involved. […] Women felt more complex and interesting”. The women she has chosen alternate by chapter.

Aaron Knodel (square-jawed and buzzcut) is Maggie’s English teacher, the sort of man, Maggie muses, who will not leave a state fair “without multiple cheap stuffed animals. His arms will be pink and blue with victory”. He starts texting her over the Christmas holiday, they meet covertly at Barnes & Noble (“He is an adult man, with a wallet!”). Consummation is achieved one night when “she came over and they said I love youa hundred times and he fingered her and ate her out and they kissed”. (Afterwards, her legs “tremble like the balsa she uses in woodworking class”.) He annotates her copy of Twilight, peppering its pages with declamatory Post-Its reading things like ‘Without conditions, like our love!’, and otherwise comparing himself to its vampiric older lover. He fingers her in a classroom, and when another teacher tries the locked door, he jumps back, pulls his hand ‘up and out’, and passes her a quiz with ‘the exaggerated slickness of a sitcom”. Maggie refers to him as the love of her life. 

It ends when Knodel’s wife finds out. The next time we see Maggie, she is twenty-one and still ‘pining’ over him. “A man like him was a hero”, we are told. “She thinks, daily, of Aaron’s body and face and words and the protection she felt in his arms.” Her trauma in the intervening years, stubbornly framed as depression, sweeps past like landscape from a speeding car: “During sex she has flashbacks and has to stop. Right in the middle of fucking, she de-suctions her parts from the other body and flops away into the chalk outline of her own shadow.” She wears long fake nails to stop herself from pulling out her own eyelashes. 

Then Knodel is made the state’s Teacher of the Year. In a very rushed sequence which leaves little room for her own reckoning, Maggie confides in her friends about what happened, and reports him. The rest of her chapters detail the court proceedings. It’s a jarring, unbalanced sequence, with big gaps where realisations of wrongdoing should be. In their absence, Maggie’s story reads dangerously like a prolonged, skin-crawling exercise in aestheticising child abuse .  

Meanwhile, in Indiana, we meet Lina, crushed under “the cool weight of untouch”, married to a man who won’t kiss her. She comes from an illustrious lineage of perpetually repressed and enraged Midwestern housewives: her mother, we are told, “had been perpetually angry. Wandering around the house, Windexing things.” We are also told, with the slight suggestion of narratorial sneer, that “All Lina has ever wanted is to be fully in love and forever partnered, like a penguin”. She is thirty-two and has two “children she must keep alive day in, day out”. She has a “big clean oven that looks like a new marriage”. Sometimes she and her husband have beige sex. She feels that her body is being wasted, that her heart is “resting like a steak on a cutting board”.

She reconnects with her high school boyfriend via Facebook, and launches headlong into a lopsided affair which sees them sharing post-coital chicken sandwiches on a Best Western sofa (“They didn’t use any condiments” is offered up as an excellent detail to colour Lina’s delusions of romance). The sex is graphic, with which this critic has no issue; but repetitively so and to no obvious end, which is less easy to forgive: “She reaches between their bodies and grabs his penis, which feels like a ruby, and rubs it against her inner lips, painting the opening with wetness to make it slide in”. “Eventually she straddled him again and reached behind her back to grab his penis. She lubricated it against the opening of her vagina then lowered herself down and began to ride him”. “She took his penis like a gearshift and ran it between her legs to lube him up and then slid down on him deeply”. And that’s just the tip of the matter. There is a protracted scene involving a Cadbury cream egg.

Sloane is a more recognisable figure. The subversive daughter of a “rich, cool dadd[y]” and a “crisp, scarved” mother, for most of her life she’s “been a ghost in light linen, drinking orange juice at elegant tables, being exquisite on Easter”. When she’s a teenager, she almost dies from an eating disorder. In her early twenties, she defects from her suburban New York life, becomes a waitress, meets her husband Richard, and they start a restaurant in Newport, RI, where he’s the chef and she’s the front of house. 

Richard has sexual demands on Sloane, which involve him telling her to sleep with other men either in front of him, filming it for him, or texting him throughout to let him know how it’s going. “It was his predilection she was serving, though she enjoyed it as well. She would rarely do something exclusively for herself when it came to sex”. What vital truth is this? And whose desire is it, anyway? We already know that women are wired, throughout their lives, to serve men’s predilections, swallowing their pleasures and desires for themselves. Sloane is similarly confused, dogged by suspicions of her marriage’s perversion, until she reads the Fifty Shades trilogy. Something clicks: she’s a submissive. Paradoxically, she feels empowered by this new knowledge bestowed on her by soft-core pornographic literarture. Taddeo would have us believe that it’s a logical continuation of her adolescent bulimia; that it is the condition of women’s hungers, whether for food or flesh, to be externally defined. Sloane is a parable: a beautiful, bulimic woman breaks free from the milieu that instigated her self-starvation. She starts a life of perpetual remission by running a restaurant where she can feed hundreds of people a night. She sleeps with the people her husband tells her to. She likes it. She lives in a “world where juices could run down her chin”. She feels free. And really, there’s nothing more to it than that.

Sloane embodies Taddeo’s admonishment that “Women shouldn’t judge each other’s lives if we haven’t been through each other’s fires”, which is far more convincing as a structuring principle than desire. ‘Desire’ in this book seems to have been rather carelessly conflated with ‘female sexual subjugation, three ways’. Its phallocentricity is a bit of a bore – and does not provide, as she writes in her prologue, a picture of “the whole of what longing in America looks like”.

Where the book succeeds, therefore, is as an exercise in empathy. Three Women is a remarkable feat of journalism and a book which pushes, hard, against the boundaries of non-fiction. Flawed as Maggie’s chapters may be, they are a refusal to overemphasise retrospection, instead dwelling in the delusions of a teenage girl who has imbibed the demon lover romances that pop culture has pushed upon her, and Lina represents a strident affirmation of female sexual need. In the case of Sloane, it forces the gaze onto the very mootness of other women’s sexualities.

Taddeo’s prose is often startling (“more than one golden retriever has died and she has peeled four thousand garlic cloves”), sometimes it is bad (“The gate that guards the reality of one’s childhood is high and existentially heavy, and merely opening it takes more energy than one expects”), sometimes it reads as if an awkward note-to-self, left in by mistake (“the close talking and the secret looks are building their story”). Mostly it reads like skilled literary mumblecore, or a film whose characters flop from self-awareness to cognitive dissonance, stumbling into zany detail: “nothing is as Catholic and binding as a clean, white blender”; “It’s not so much the trips to Home Depot as the silent pronouncement of the tongue – you see, I have been to Home Depot. I have selected the precise stones out there on the walkway. I have stripped a table, and stained it a slightly darker colour.” With this book, Taddeo joins the ranks of Lena Dunham and Greta Gerwig: cynical, sexually blunt, unflinching, perhaps lauded for a universality they do not possess, but nevertheless powerful clarion calls for unabashed female appetites.

Stephanie Sy-Quia [3] is a freelance writer and critic based in London. She is a Ledbury Emerging Writer Poetry Critic.