Three Women Summary
10 min read ⌚
It’s time to talk about sex again.
But this time it is as real as it gets.
Learn all about it, via Lisa Taddeo, from:
Who Should Read “Three Women”? And Why?
It’s the 21st century, there are nearly naked photos of just about everyone you know on Instagram, and pornography is ubiquitous, so it is more than exaggerated to say that sex is still a taboo topic.
Yet, as Three Women demonstrates, it is nothing less than that for about half of the United States. Moreover, the taboo of heterosexual marriage being a sham 9 out of 10 times is a taboo topic for just about everybody, it seems.
Compared to Kristen Roupenian’s viral phenomenon “Cat Person,” Three Women is a book for all the women out there who feel that their desire is crippled and maimed by society. It is also a book for all the men who want to understand their wives, their girlfriends, their mothers, their sisters—and do something to make them happier.
About Lisa Taddeo
Lisa Taddeo is an American writer.
A two-time recipient of the Pushcart Prize (2017, 2019), she has published numerous short stories in magazines such as Granta, McSweeney’s, CQR, The Sewanee Review, and others.
Her short story “Beautiful People” won the Andrew Lytle Prize for the best story published in 2018 by The Sewanee Review.
Currently working on her first novel, Three Women is Taddeo’s debut nonfiction work.
“Three Women PDF Summary”
“It’s the nuances of desire that hold the truth of who we are at our rawest moments,” writes Lisa Taddeo in the “Prologue” to Three Women.
That’s why—additionally stirred by the fact that her mother, for reasons unknown to Lisa, allowed for years an old man she didn’t know to masturbate to her going to work—Taddeo set out “to register the heat and sting of female want so that men and other women might more easily comprehend before they condemn.”
“Because,” she says, “it’s the quotidian minutes of our lives that will go on forever, that will tell us who we were, who our neighbors and our mothers were, when we were too diligent in thinking they were nothing like us.”
As suggested by the title—perhaps borrowed from Robert Musil’s collection of three novellas—Taddeo’s debut work is the story of three women, whose sexual lives and desires the author followed and painstakingly recorded for almost a decade.
Their names are Maggie (real name), Lina, and Sloane (pseudonyms).
When we first meet Maggie, she is a 23-year-old girl from Fargo, North Dakota, going to court to confront the town’s favorite teacher, Aaron Knodel.
By her account, six years before that—when she was just a teenager in the second semester of her freshman year—Aaron Knodel had seduced and used her in the way a “wholesomely carnal” teacher “possessing the strut of a movie star” can seduce and use a 17-year-old dream-eyed child completely and utterly enthralled with him.
Interestingly, during their years-long affair, the two never had sex: Aaron never allowed that. They did everything else, though—even with Aaron’s children in the same house, sleeping—until, one day, Aaron’s wife discovered the texts between the two and Aaron abruptly ended everything with Maggie.
Maggie was devastated.
With Aaron, it was the first time in her life that she felt something as profound and as beautiful as love. “Like many girls her age,” writes Taddeo, with him “Maggie [was] laid out before the world, unafraid, unpopulated. Men come to insert themselves, they turn a girl into a city. 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.”
Maggie said nothing for some time, until one day, she learned that Aaron Knodel was named North Dakota’s Teacher of the Year.
It was then that she decided to step forward.
In this #MeToo era, you would expect the exact opposite to happen, i.e., everybody to believe her and deem Aaron the perpetrator without any evidence.
But this isn’t Los Angeles or New York so what follows is something even worse, located on the other side of the spectrum> nobody believes Maggie. In fact, everybody starts talking about her as a “crazy and broken” girl who wants nothing more than a payback and some money.
The fact that her relationship with Aaron started after she confided to him that she has had a relationship with another older man is used as evidence against her in court. Aaron’s status—popular and well-liked married man and teacher with children—is enough to question almost everything Maggie says.
The final verdict?
Aaron is innocent, and he keeps his job.
Maggie, on the other hand, is scarred for life. Because of her relationship with Aaron, she has dropped out of college and now works as a waitress, hardly the career she hoped for and dreamt of.
“There are two Americas,” concludes Taddeo, absolutely certain that Aaron is guilty and Maggie twice the victim. “There are men, and there are women, and one still rules the other in certain pockets of the country, in moments that are not televised. Even when women fight back, they must do it correctly. They must cry the right amount and look pretty but not hot.”
We move to suburban Indiana to meet Lina, the second of the three women from the title, a homemaker and a mother of two.
The thing she wanted the most in her life was to be desired by someone.
Unfortunately for her, she ended up being married to Ed, someone who, after ten years of marriage, doesn’t like to kiss her anymore, because the sensation of someone else’s tongue in his mouth “offends” him.
Lina loves her children, but almost nothing else about her life:
People in towns like Lina’s think people are good people if they are not cheating, if they are not leaving home. Lina is having a mental breakdown because nobody cares. Nobody died, so nobody cares. She feels that she’s suffocating. She has these children she has to keep alive day in, day out, and if anything happened to them she would die, but at the same time, they are weights. She feels alone in caring for them. She feels alone in caring for herself. She wishes she could stop caring for everything. She wishes she could burn the house down. She wishes her husband would touch her and make her feel like a living thing. She tried telling a friend. She tried asking for help. Oh, Lina! her friend said, laughing. Of course you feel terrible, you’re married!
One day, Lina reconnects online with an old crush of hers: Aidan. Aidan was one of the popular guys at her school, “strong and hot and extremely quiet so that every time he opens his mouth it’s exciting.”
However, she lost him after one kiss and after she was basically sexually assaulted by three guys during a party that was not really a party (that’s not how the story was told by the guys, though).
Now, years later, Lina has no intention of letting him go. Though married with children of his own, Aidan, still “a loaf of a man,” reciprocates. The passion is real and knee-tingling and heart-drubbing. The passion overcomes Lina.
The guy she shared her first kiss with is the guy who has now awoken her from her monotonous “sleeping maid marriage” with another. And another. And another.
Entirely physical, the affair goes on and on—mostly on the backs of their cars and in hotel rooms. Even though Lina is very much aware that Aidan isn’t as attached to this as she is, she doesn’t mind: just like Madame Bovary, Lina finds in this affair something more, something akin to sexual liberation.
And she knows how much that has changed her.
“Not having a partner, for Lina, was like slowly, quietly dying,” writes Taddeo. “Maybe Aidan… would never leave his wife. Maybe none of the ways in which she’d gilded him were accurate. But Aidan made her veins hot. He made her feel like a girl and not a part of the house. She could no longer see the end of her life clearly, she could no longer picture the grayness of the earth she would be buried under and the road the hearse would take to get her there. And that was more living than she’d done in her whole life.”
Sloane is the pseudonym Taddeo uses instead of the name of a wealthy restaurateur in her early forties, thin and genuine with a face like a sorority girl and a very long, very beautiful hair the color of chestnuts.
She is married to a man named Richard, “who is not as handsome as she is beautiful.” The two have two daughters, “equine and vibrant like their mother; and a third child, Lila, Richard’s daughter from his first relationship.”
They live in Newport, on Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay, own a restaurant, and, as a family, are both “bound very neatly” and distant enough so that each member can be his or her own person.
It is this last thing that really changes everything one day, when, out of the blue, Karin, an employee at their restaurant, proposes Richard something indecent: a threesome. “You can propose that to Sloane, if you like,” Richard, always the devoted husband, calmly replied.
A few days later, Karin and Sloane spend a day together with each other, and they spend the night together with Richard. One thing leads to another and, before too long, the three engage in a sexual relationship. At first, Sloane has problems watching her husband inside another woman.
She overcomes them the same night, but for Richard they become a character trait: soon after, he starts encouraging (even pressuring) his wife into relationships with other men. Sometimes, she describes him these affairs. More often, however, he watches them firsthand.
Problems arise when Jenny, the wife of one of Sloane’s favorite extramarital partners, Wes, finds out about her husband’s sexual affair.
“You’re the woman,” she confronts Sloane. “And you let this happen… Don’t you know you’re supposed to have the power?”
“What she really wanted was for Richard to explain to Jenny that he’d pushed her to do it, which was the truth,” informs us Taddeo. “She wanted him to say, Look, this isn’t Sloane going after Wes; we were confused about your relationship. This is something we both did as a couple. It wasn’t Sloane. She’s not what you think.”
Richard didn’t do that.
But that didn’t take away too much of Sloane’s love for him.
Strangely enough, as far as Sloane is concerned, “there is nothing more important than the fact that she wants her husband above all others, and he wants her above all else.”
Key Lessons from “Three Women”
1. The Hypocrisies of the Heterosexual Marriage
2. Scarred by the Male Gaze
3. The Persistence of Gender Inequality
The Hypocrisies of the Heterosexual Marriage
“Monogamy today,” wrote Aubrey de Gray in “The Overdue Demise of Monogamy,” “compares with heterosexuality not too many decades ago, or tolerance of slavery 150 years ago. Quite a lot of people depart from it, a much smaller minority actively advocate the acceptance of departure from it, but most people advocate it and disparage the minority view.”
Three Women justifies this observation. Among the three women it portrays, the one who has something that is the closest to a happy marriage is Sloane, a middle-aged swinger who has threesomes with people chosen by her husband.
Paradoxically, it is this subversion of marriage roles that seems to work better than traditional marriage or the notion of everlasting love for the women investigated by Taddeo. Is it at all surprising that this is true for many other couples as well?
Scarred by the Male Gaze
“One inheritance of living under the male gaze for centuries,” writes Lisa Taddeo at one place, “is that heterosexual women often look at other women the way a man would.”
That’s why Maggie, a sufferer of the after-effects of an affectionate relationship with a married teacher of hers, is publicly shamed and insulted by other women as well when she decides to raise the issue and confront her teacher in court.
In the wake of #MeToo, it may seem strange to write a paragraph such as the one above, but, as Sartre taught is, the above is nothing more but an aspect of human nature.
“The way the wind blows in our country can make us question who we are in our own lives,” notes Taddeo along these lines. “Often, the type of waiting women do is to make sure other women approve so that they may also approve of themselves.”
The Persistence of Gender Inequality
Men and women are equal, but only if you are living in the developed parts of the developed world.
For half of the American women, the first five words of the sentence above have no meaning at all: as Maggie found out, even being the victim changes nothing because when the man who used you is religious, married and respected, the whole community will stand beside him.
That’s how it has been for millennia. That’s how it still is for millions of women in the US.
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“Three Women Quotes”We pretend to want things we don't want so nobody can see us not getting what we need. Click To Tweet Look at me. I put this war paint on, but underneath I’m scarred and scared and horny and tired and love you. Click To Tweet She's never understood exactly what it means to seethe until tonight. She's never understood that pain can so easily feel like the most crippling anger. Click To Tweet When you're young you can do almost anything, and it won't be sad. Click To Tweet There is no humanity in humans. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
Written in the tradition of Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Three Women has been justly described as “a work of deep observation, long conversations, and a kind of journalistic alchemy” (NPR), and “a groundbreaking portrait of erotic longing in today’s America.”
And it is the more interesting America of today one can get to know on these pages, the one—as Taddeo notes—that is “not televised” and is all the more real for that. It is the America of female desire in a still patriarchal structure of relationships, the America of taboos nobody speaks about but everyone breaks, the America of sex and tears and marital infidelity.
Lauded as “the most in-depth look at the female sex drive that’s been published in decades” by New York, Three Women is “breathtaking” and “staggeringly intimate” (Entertainment Weekly).
And it is definitely one of the books of 2019.
Learn more and more, in the speed that the world demands.