Books

Passion and Its Price

In Three Women, Lisa Taddeo takes an up-close look at illicit sexual encounters and the stormy emotions they evoke.

Photo silhouettes of three women
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Karl Magnuson on Unsplash, Oleg Ivanov on Unsplash, Marvin Meyer on Unsplash, Eugene Chystiakov on Unsplash.

When journalist Lisa Taddeo set out to write a portrait of desire in contemporary America—a book originally intended to follow in the footsteps of Gay Talese’s 1981 bestseller, Thy Neighbor’s Wife—some of the first people she interviewed were men. In the prologue to Three Women, the book she ultimately published, she describes these men’s stories of lusts and peccadilloes as reminding her of the entrees you order from a Chinese restaurant menu again and again. They were tasty, but samey, kung pao chicken in a cardboard container. The stories of the women she interviewed, on the other hand, were another order of delicacy: once-in-a-lifetime meals served under a summer moon, or multilayered Michelin Guide–level culinary extravaganzas.

Three Women is not Thy Neighbor’s Wife. It doesn’t profess to offer a snapshot of the sex lives of Americans, or even of American women. Its characters aren’t representative, but that goal, while admirable, is a casualty of the approach Taddeo took, which is a deep, deep dive into the sexual psyches of her three characters: two Midwestern women and a sleek East Coast restaurateur. It’s the rare person of any gender who is willing to allow a journalist to embed herself into her life, let alone permit that journalist to recount in explicit detail illicit sexual encounters and the stormy emotions they evoke. In the book’s epilogue, Taddeo explains that other subjects, including a bisexual black woman from Dominica, dropped out of the project for various reasons: the Dominican because “she fell in love and was afraid that talking about it would make it go away.”

The three women who remained are Maggie, now in her 20s and still recovering from the romance she had with her high school teacher at age 17; Lina, a passionate housewife who leaves her cold fish of a husband and plunges into an affair with her first crush; and Sloane, who runs a fashionable restaurant in a summer resort town with a chef husband who likes to watch her have sex with other people.

Each is what Taddeo calls “relatable” in a different way, and each has done things that brought on the disapproval of her community. Maggie believes her life was derailed by her teacher’s transgression, and in 2014, at age 22, she reported him to the police, triggering a very public and devastating court case that resulted in the teacher’s acquittal. Lina’s faith in the preeminence of love in all its physical abandon and heedless glory prompts her to discard advantages that the women around her envy: a steady provider and the solid middle-class life of a full-time homemaker. Sloane—thin, beautiful, chic, the daughter of privilege—appears to be “perfect” in the manner of a lifestyle blogger, but her life consists of a patchwork of flawless performances, leaving her unsure of who she is and what she really wants. Taddeo spent eight years researching their stories, at times moving to the women’s towns “so I could better understand their day-to-day lives.”

What makes Three Women so remarkable and indelible, and also so refreshingly out-of-step with the tenor of the present moment, is Taddeo’s refusal to judge these “characters.” She is not particularly interested in determining who is right, who is wrong, and who is to blame. Intensity and compulsion draw her to these stories like tractor beams. What most fascinates her is how sexual desire transfigures the entire tissue of a personality and changes the course of lives. This explains why her attention finally reserved itself to women. “[W]hereas the man’s throttle died in the closing salvo of the orgasm,” she writes, “I found that the woman’s was often just beginning. There was complexity and beauty and violence, even, in the way the women experienced the same event.” It is the mess she seeks, not just the drive that gets us into it.

Taddeo opens the book with a story from her own mother’s youth in Bologna, Italy, when an old man followed her to work every morning, masturbating in the shadows. The anecdote is a typical example of how desire enters a young girl’s life—as a sudden force from the outside world, from men and boys, a confusing, overwhelming, and sometimes frightening bombardment that makes it difficult to find the mental space to figure out her own hungers. “My mother never spoke about what she wanted,” Taddeo writes. “About what turned her on or off. Sometimes it seemed that she didn’t have any desires of her own. That her sexuality was merely a trail in the woods, the unmarked kind that is made by boots trampling tall grass. And the boots belonged to my father.” Any fiction writer knows that to make an invented character interesting, you must clarify what this person wants; a character whose desires are occluded, who is merely the object of the desires of others, registers as wan and opaque.

At the same time, the belief that a “good” woman should be without appetite, that women’s desires are unseemly or even ugly, has been tenacious, especially among women themselves. When Maggie publicly accused a popular teacher of seducing her five years after the event, his defenders retorted, as such detractors often do, that she was after money or attention or even just yearning to believe that a wholesome mentor-protégée bond had been infected by the erotic desire she only wished he’d felt for her. Lina, who was drugged and raped by three classmates she barely knew as a teenager, came to school the next day to find she had acquired a reputation as the girl who had “fucked three guys in one night.” To ostracize these two women, their peers and neighbors falsely condemned them for what happened, for desiring what and who they shouldn’t.

In the narrow spaces between erasure and vilification, women’s desires seek purchase like stubborn desert plants. To see them better, Taddeo zeroed in on “the stories wherein desire was something that could not be controlled, when the object of desire dictated the narrative.” This, she feels, “was where I found the most magnificence, the most pain. It resembled pedaling a bicycle backward, the agony and futility and, finally, the entry into another world altogether.” None of the narratives in Three Women are inspirational or empowering, but they are what the best long-form journalism should be, which is truthful.

Part of that truthfulness is Taddeo’s recognition that real life rarely lends itself to simple and conclusive verdicts. Lina believes Aidan, a boy she once pined for and briefly dated in high school, to be “the love of my life.” Their love, as Lina explained to a women’s discussion group Taddeo sat in on, “was fathomless. But also, they were star-crossed. It’s a Romeo and Juliet story. It’s awful and beautiful because of the way they came to their end. And she has thought of him ever since.” How they “came to their end” isn’t quite clear, although the stigma that clung to Lina after the rape seems to be part of it. What any reader can see, however, is that Aidan is no Romeo. He comes across as an unexceptional galoot whose primary merit is his skill in the bedroom. Even he recognizes that Lina deserves more than he, a married man with no evident intention of leaving his wife, can give her; at one point he suggests she try dating one of his single friends.

Lina’s passion for Aidan is nuts, a waste, but also, under Taddeo’s concentrated attention, not without a certain grandeur. Through sheer will, Lina has brought “magnificence” into a prosaic world. Aidan will never amount to much, never be “a marine or an astronaut or a ballplayer,” Taddeo writes.

He will not sing in a band or swim in the Pacific. Outside of his kids and his wife and the things he will have done for them (which count, but they also do not, in that way a man needs something in outer space to count) he will not have done anything anyone will really remember. Except for who he was to one woman. He was everything.

Maggie, even as a child of 16, had something of the same useless power. In her junior year, she sent her favorite teacher a letter explaining “why this semester is going to blow.” She’d had a brief summer romance with an older man while visiting her sister in Hawaii, and everyone freaked out about it. At a time when her family regarded her as a victim, and her classmates insinuated that she’d been a slut, Mr. Knodel seemed like he would understand her.

The letter led to a series of increasingly flirtatious texts, then some furtive erotic encounters. She fell in love and believed, with girlish naiveté, that he had too, that he was preparing to leave his wife for her. She told him her favorite book was Twilight and that their forbidden love reminded her of the romance in that novel, that he was her vampire lover. He returned the copy she loaned him bristling with comments written on yellow Post-It notes, indicating how much he agreed. Then she broke one of the cardinal rules he’d imposed on their relationship: She must never text him first. In her enthusiasm, she sends him a birthday greeting, and his wife sees it. Mr. Knodel cuts off Maggie, cold.

Some of Taddeo’s best writing (presumably facilitated by Maggie herself) comes in the description of how this rejection devastates a girl who first couldn’t believe her brilliant teacher really loved her and then couldn’t believe that the orchestrator of such a courtship really didn’t love her. It feels, “as though someone is freezing your organs. It’s so cold you can’t breathe.” Maggie views the trial that follows her accusation as both a vindication of what she’s suffered and a chance to see him again. “This is an outlandish notion,” Taddeo writes, “only if you don’t know how a person can destroy you by the simple act of disappearing.”

Lisa Taddeo
Lisa Taddeo
Simon & Schuster

For most of Three Women, Taddeo immerses herself in the perspective of her subjects. Her aim is not to establish what “really” happened by assembling the points of view of everyone involved, but to do justice to the experience of one participant, in this case a woman who felt that her own reality had been denied. Maggie had been a gifted but vulnerable child, with alcoholic parents and peers who rushed to judge her for her first romance. After her relationship with Mr. Knodel ended, she became depressed, was heavily medicated, and repeatedly dropped out of college. She felt that the affair had wrecked her life; he behaved as if it had never happened. He was important in their town, a recipient of a Teacher of the Year award, and she was nobody.

In the book’s epilogue, Taddeo considers several ways to interpret what happened between Maggie and Mr. Knodel. In one, he is a “monster,” a skilled predator cutting off a vulnerable member from the herd. In another, he and his family are the victims of a crazy liar. But in yet another (and it’s obvious that this is the take Taddeo favors) Knodel is a teacher with a “biggish ego,” sliding into middle age. He liked the idea of being somebody’s vampire lover, and whenever Maggie’s crush showed signs of fading, “another chance at youth was petering out and so he wrote, I am falling in love with you. And what he meant was, I am in love with who I am now, again, so please don’t leave, because this fresh me will die if your crush on me dies.” Because Maggie was a willing participant in their relationship (which Knodel insists never happened), in those pre-#MeToo years, even many who believed her had difficulty viewing her as the wronged party or seeing Knodel as deserving of punishment. But as Taddeo points out, Maggie had potential. A great teacher, as Knodel ostensibly was, “could have been the catalyst that propelled her into a lifetime of confidence and greatness. Instead, he became the opposite.”

Sloane, the third of Taddeo’s women, takes the longest to come into focus because so much of her identity has been constructed to meet the expectations of others. Class and wealth place her in a different category from, say, Lina, who because she didn’t know how to support herself and her children without him, stays too long with a husband who refused to kiss or touch her. Sloane has a vocation: She relishes running the front of the house at her restaurant, orchestrating the evening for customers and directing a cast of servers. She’s married to a man she loves. When he selects other men or women for her to have sex with while he watches and occasionally participates, she regards the trysts as another way of making love to him.

The only one of these partners with whom she has felt any abiding connection, however, is a man they knew professionally. At first their ménage felt perfect, as if Sloane’s and her husband’s desires had “finally dovetailed in a way she hadn’t thought was possible.” Only later did she begin to suspect that the other man’s wife wasn’t aware of their arrangement, and when it all blew up, somehow Sloane took all the blame. She wishes her husband would explain to the man’s wife that it was his idea, but he doesn’t.

Sloane, with her untethered identity, her weird repressed WASP-y background, and her history of eating disorders, makes for an intriguing if elusive character. She is both more and less in charge of her life than Lina and Maggie, but like them, she is held responsible not just by her former lover’s wife, but by their entire beach town community for the transgressions in her sex life, while the men involved seem to evaporate as soon as the consequences arrive. When the other man’s wife confronts her a year after the ménage ended, they have a conversation much like the one Maggie and Mr. Knodel might have had if she had ever really been able to call him to account for the damage he’d done. Like Mr. Knodel, Sloane won’t answer her accuser, although not because, too caught up in getting what she wanted to care about anybody else’s feelings, she didn’t spare a thought for her lover’s wife. The truth is that she can’t even own her trespasses because she was too caught up in somebody else’s desires to attend to her own. Either way, though, like all three of Taddeo’s flawed, love-struck, and magnificently depicted women, she’s paying the price.

Book cover and author photo
Simon and Schuster

Three Women

By Lisa Taddeo. Simon & Schuster.