Books · Sex & Sexuality

“Three Women:” An Intimate Portrait of Intimacy

Lina, in her 30s, lives in Indiana, and is nearing the end of her marriage to a man who won’t kiss her and taps her on the shoulder to ask if she feels “like doin’ it” as his form of foreplay. She was sexually assaulted in high school, leading her boyfriend, Aidan, to drop her because her doesn’t believe her account. Lina has never quite gotten over him, though Aidan is now married with children of his own. When she reconnects with him, they embark on what is for him an entirely physical affair, a noncommittal distraction. Lina experiences it as sexual liberation, however, ignoring the neediness and desperate way she tries to attract him and to please him. Despite this imbalance, the physical pleasure she finds in their couplings transporting, and she finds a part of herself previously denied.

The way it is portrayed Lina and Aidan’s relationship may be sexier than her marriage, but is it really a progression? Aidan seems to be the same clueless and selfish jerk he was in high school. “The truth is — Lina knows it in clear moments on clear days — he thinks of her only when it’s convenient and when he’s drunk and when he’s bored and when there is a perfect storm of possibility,” Taddeo writes. “When he can see her easily and not risk being caught or being in trouble with work or wasting too much gas. But even then, he won’t mind if he doesn’t. Even then he can take it or leave it.” 

Sloane, from a tony family in Newport, R.I., is middle-aged and runs a restaurant in Nantucket with her husband, Richard. She has a history of bulimia, and though stunningly attractive and seemingly more centered than the other two women, she participates in threesomes at her husband’s request, essentially for his pleasure. Like the others, Sloane too is punished when she enters an arrangement like this with a married colleague. She assumed he too was in an open marriage, and she is devastated when his wife confronts her about her betrayal. “You’re the woman,” she tells Sloane. “And you let this happen.” Though it was at Richard’s instigation, she still feels like the guilty party. “What [Sloane] really wanted was for Richard to explain to Jenny that he’d pushed her to do it, which was the truth,” Taddeo writes.

Despite their differences, all three narratives are vividly similar in the women’s eagerness to please their partners above all else. The “desire” part of their actions is secondary to their wish for connection, approval, intimacy, and response.

“Throughout history, men have broken women’s hearts in a particular way,” Taddeo writes in her prologue. “They love and then grow weary and spend weeks and months extricating themselves soundlessly, pulling their tails back into the doorways, drying themselves off, and never calling again.” Taddeo writes of Maggie, “Men come to insert themselves. . . “When they leave, their residue remains, the discoloration on the wood where the sun came through every day for many days, until one day it didn’t.” 

Taddeo sees the injustice here. “There are men and there are women,” she writes. “And one still rules the other in the pockets of the country that are not televised.” Even when it is televised, as in the Brett Kavanagh confirmation hearings, women are often disbelieved.

Taddeo presents Sloane as coming closest to having a happy sex life. “She knows that at the end of the day, aside from the health of their family and dearest friends,” Taddeo writes, “there is nothing more important than the fact that she wants her husband above all others, and he wants her above all else.”

Though she does not give a clear sense of why she chose these women, Taddeo thought they would be “relatable,” and of course, they were extremely open.  Much of the book is written with the immediacy of the moment, and details of the sexual encounters are vivid and complete. In that sense, she has made a valuable contribution to the literature of women’s sexuality. Though her writing is sometimes overly metaphorical, she infuses the story with a kind of lyricism not often found in nonfiction.

Though never packing the cringe-worthy power of Kristen Roupenian’s New Yorker short story “Cat Person,” parts of this book will discourage you.

In the end, the picture we get is that these women are relatable, but if they representative of our gender in this moment in time, patriarchy, and women’s submissiveness to it, are alive and flourishing. For her subjects, desire means suffering, and as Taddeo writes, “there’s nothing safer than wanting nothing.”

Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.