by Lisa Taddeo
I sit down to write this review on a rainy, late July afternoon, having just finished the book. Something akin to dread sits heavy in the pit of my stomach, and I know, with a feeling not unlike fear, that it has forever changed me.
As I sit here, contemplating what to say, I stare out of my living room windows, at the flower garden, now a riot of late season blooms, and the sprawling field beyond, dotted with fluffy white sheep already fattening themselves up for the long, hard winter to come, and I think, “What now?”
I don’t feel this way often. Maybe it’s because I’ve read so many books that I’ve lost count. Maybe it’s because I’m 36 and at this point in my life, I feel stable, content. I know who I am in a way that my 20-year-old self would have thought was alien and unattainable. Or maybe it’s because I don’t read much non-fiction. Maybe all fact-based books hit this hard. I wouldn’t know. What I do know is that it’s been years since I’ve finished a book and felt like something… tectonic has shifted inside of me.
“Even when women fight back, they must do it correctly. They must cry the right amount and look pretty but not hot.”
Before I get into the meat of what I want to say, it should be noted that both the blurb and the initial marketing of this book did it a great disservice. The author followed the sex lives of three (white) women for ten years, and from the media buzz, it seemed as if she’d done some deep dive into the psychology of their desires. That this book would be analytical. That it would say many important but pompous Things™ about female sexuality.
I mean, did you see that one line from the blurb? “…as a buried force in our lives, desire remains largely unexplored – until now.” I read that line and thought, “Jesus Christ, are you serious?” Whoever wrote it clearly doesn’t read much romance. Female authors have been exploring female desire for-fucking-ever.
So after selecting Three Women for my July 2019 BoTM box, I read that line from the blurb, laughed, decided I’d chosen the wrong book, and set it on a bookshelf to remain forgotten until now.
I haven’t been online much in the past two years. Or on social media. We live on a farm in rural New Hampshire, and while Farmstagram might look real pretty on your feed, the reality is that most of us are usually too covered in sweat and animal shit to take a cute selfie. The books I’ve read have largely been suggested by friends or female relatives or some bizarre Amazon algorithm that led to me losing an entire month of my life (that I in no way regret losing) to the Ice Planet Barbarians series and its many spinoffs.
Lately, I’ve started logging back into Goodreads, and I saw that someone I’ve been following since I first joined the site loved this book. She said to ignore the hype and read it for what it is: the stories of three women, presented without much fanfare, but told with captivating efficiency and immediacy. So I figured I’d give it a try. Hell, I spent good money on it, and to leave books languishing unread for years feels deeply wrong to me.
I finally picked it up a few days ago, with minimal expectations, and it proceeded to quietly but unequivocally tear my mind open.
“But life knows when to throw in a plot twist. It is an idle but seasoned screenwriter, drinking beers alone and cultivating its archery.”
This book does say many important things, but none of them are pompous. They’re quiet, insidious things, whispered into your ear, confirming truths you’ve known since you were a young girl and you first felt the Male Gaze land upon your underdeveloped body, sly, assessing, wondering when you would be “ready” or maybe not caring if you were yet.
It talks, unabashedly, about the lives of these three women. What made them who they are. What piques their lust and gets them off. It talks about their desires in a way that makes you examine your own, face them head on, maybe for the very first time.
I’ve read several more reviews about this book now, since I started writing my own, and I keep noticing the blank spaces in some of them. The almost pregnant pauses between paragraphs where I can hear reviewers thinking to themselves. Things like “I wish my husband would fuck me harder”, “I wish I was brave enough to try a threesome”, “Why can’t I just tell him to pinch my nipples?”, “Why can’t I just ask her to put a finger in my ass?”, “Oh, Jesus, is this the last dick I’ll ever ride?”, “the last cunt I’ll ever lick?”.
That is the power of this book. It voices these unspoken thoughts. It tells you that it’s OKAY to think these things. Sure, you might have known that, even if only subconsciously, but there’s something about seeing other people, on paper, have the same thoughts and act on them that normalizes it. Makes you realize that you’re not alone. Because while I do see desire discussed a lot in fiction, I don’t see it much in real life.
Sure, with my parter, or amongst a few of my closer friends, I’ve had frank discussions about what we want. What we’re not getting. What we need more of. Less of. Discussions filled with those dark thoughts you keep in the back of your head, that you only speak aloud to your closest confidants because you know that they won’t judge you. That maybe they’ll reciprocate and you can both feel shittily normal together for wanting things you’re not getting.
But with anyone else? Nope.
This book opens with a story about the author’s mother, who, as a young woman in 1960s Italy walked to and from work. Several days a week, an elderly man followed a few steps behind her, jerking himself off to the sway of her hips. How did the author’s mother feel about that? Why did she never scream? Throw things at him? Cause a scene? Report it? Was she repulsed by him? Terrified? Or turned on? Taddeo doesn’t know. They didn’t discuss these things.
“…it’s women, in many of the stories I’ve heard, who have greater hold over other women than men have. We can make each other feel dowdy, whorish, unclean, unloved, not beautiful.”
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The worst things that have ever been said to me have been said by women. I have been silenced and shamed and judged and insulted by women who were supposed to love and care for me. By strangers in restaurants. By girls in clubs who thought my dress was too short.
I barely remember the gross things that men have said to me over the years, but I remember almost every truly horrible thing that women have. Like when I was working as a hostess in an Irish tavern and a drunk lady in her 60s came up to me, took my hand in hers, looked down at my fingers, and told me to stop trying to be pretty. I was big-boned, so I would be fat and therefore ugly my whole life. I was 16 at the time and already visibly emaciated from anorexia.
I hadn’t thought about that woman in years. Then I read this book. I hadn’t thought about a lot of the bad things that have happened to me in a long time, but reading these women’s stories brought a lot of them back to the forefront, because I am in no way alone in what I’ve gone through.
What I’m saying is that this is by no means an easy book to read, but I think it should still be read.
Maybe it will make you feel seen. Maybe it will make you uncomfortable. I don’t know. But I can guarantee that it will make you think. That it will make you feel. Maybe after reading it, the next time some idle thought pops into your head during an intimate moment with your partner or partners, a thought about what you wish they would do to you, or what you want to do to them, instead of keeping it in, you’ll say it out loud.
Because life is too short to have bad sex. Or average sex. Or to just go on silently wanting things you’ve been trained not to ask for, by society, by men, by other women. You don’t even have to say it out loud. Just writing these things down, acknowledging that they exist and they are real and they are valid can be deeply freeing.
By now you’re probably remembering the beginning of this review, where I said that this book has changed me. You’re probably thinking about the almost pregnant pauses between the paragraphs I’ve written and are wondering about what I’m not saying.
But we don’t know each other like that, so you’ll just have to keep on wondering.