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“Female sexuality reduced to novelty”: On Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

Angelica critically examines the 2019 non-fiction text.

There is no doubting Lisa Taddeo’s commitment to research for her blockbuster book, Three Women. She begins by telling the reader that over the course of eight years she drove across the country six times, spent thousands of hours with her three chosen subjects, moving to the towns they lived in, all to better understand their lives. Delving deep into their stories and their relationships, she explores their sexuality to expand on her research of “human (female) desire”. But was it worth it?

This journalistic account of the defining sexual relationships in three people’s lives has been a huge success in the world of feminist literature. Three Women, Taddeo’s debut, was a number one in both The Sunday Times and The New York Times bestseller lists, received the most ‘Book of the Year’ picks in the UK in 2019, was named a ‘Book of the Decade’ by Stylist, and was the Foyles Non-Fiction Book of the Year.

Three Women arrived in a new era of female expression; a wealth of female empowerment born out of the #MeToo movement, new platforms, new voices, and new ways of expressing memories, sensations, emotions and anger. In this environment, Taddeo’s narratives of her subjects – Maggie, Lina and Sloane – and their struggles in regaining their sexual, social, and bodily autonomy was timely. Slate described it as ‘remarkable and indelible’ and one Goodreads reviewer said they would give this book “700,000 stars if I could”.

Three Women was a book of the moment and was clearly very well received. It is a laudable and honest attempt to uncover truths about desire. Sadly, I don’t believe it will last the test of time. Her unsophisticated and sometimes downright silly writing does not do justice to the topic addressed. Reading more like a Cosmopolitan article, she writes in detail about the sexual encounters of these three women and not much else. While this gossipy style might appeal to some, my main take-away was that female sexuality had been reduced to a novelty. 

Though Taddeo takes herself overwhelmingly seriously, her writing does not do this justice. The New York Times describes the book as an “‘assembly line of truly terrible metaphors”, and questions her incomprehensible writing: “Have you ever met a man who exudes the ‘pale sweetness of cashew’ or opens like an ‘avuncular oyster’”? The review goes on to question her lack of diversity: “Taddeo’s subjects are all white young and (mostly) heterosexual – selected, she says utterly straight-faced, for their ‘relatability.’” Relatable to her, perhaps, but not to everyone.

Three Women was born from an exciting time in feminism and women’s ownership of their sexuality, but this is not a book for posterity.

Three Women has been adapted for TV by Showtime, and is set to be released in the coming months.

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