The Reading List: Three Women, Lisa Taddeo, 2019

Book cover with 'three women' and 'lisa taddeo' in large, black lower case font, on a white background, with a red block line in between.
Three Women, Lisa Taddeo; Image source: Wikipedia

The patriarchy weaves its way into the lives of three real women

I went into this book not really realising that it was non-fiction. Taddeo has gathered the stories of three women in the United States, all of which address the theme of desire, particularly sexual desire. That sounds like a pretty standard set-up for a book really: when you think about it the majority of novels have something to do with this. However this doesn’t really prepare you for just how grim a read this book is going to be. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely enjoyed it, and found it quite gripping, but it certainly is not going to cheer you up. The chapters rotate between the three ‘characters’: one is the story of a high school girl who has a ‘relationship’ with her teacher, the next that of a sexually unsatisfied housewife, and the third that of a bisexual woman and the threesomes she and her husband have. Of these, perhaps it is the first that is ringing the loudest alarm bells, but as each story unfolds, we see how these three women are all impacted by the patriarchy – every facet of their lives, their understanding of their own desires, their relationships with the men, and women, around them is coloured by society’s expectations of women and their roles, emotions and status.

I can see that this book might be quite revelatory for some people. If like me you go into it not really knowing what to expect, the way Taddeo carefully crafts the stories, letting the women and their experiences speak for themselves, could be quite shocking and eye-opening. Its strength is in its strange mix of subtlety and explicitness – by calling out their own feelings and experiences, each woman makes a compelling case for how the men in their lives benefit from privileges they do not have access to and escape judgement and retribution where it is showered on the women.

But quite honestly, it was this drudging pervasiveness of sexism that made the book quite a hard read for me. I wouldn’t say I read entirely as a form of escapism – I wouldn’t shy away from a book just for being a bit heavy. However this book had a little bit of a sense of preaching to the converted. It spoke to an experience that I think all women have encountered to some extent. I’m well aware of the ways the patriarchy interacts with and limits women’s lives. At this point, and with the kind of end of the world exhaustion that we are facing at a time when the climate crisis gets ever worse, government corruption is rife, and people seem to have decided to move on from their collective Black Lives Matter ‘moment’ without making any real change, I just don’t feel motivated to read more things that just lay out how bad the situation is. At this point, I want solutions. I want intersectional, actionable solutions that will help me overcome that feeling of dread and hopelessness. None of this is to say that Taddeo’s book was ever going to, or ever should, offer such solutions – that’s clearly not what she was setting out to achieve. Rather that this wasn’t the time for me to read her work.

Another aspect of the book that I think is worth addressing is that all three of the women are white. I’m not sure if this was a conscious choice on Taddeo’s part or if it’s just how it turned out with which of the women she initially spoke to worked out in the end. But one can’t help but feel: do we really need to hear about more white women? I realise the irony of saying this as a white woman sharing her opinion, but I think these stories could have been way more, almost as it were useful if they weren’t centring white women’s experiences. Feminism has always put white women first, and that’s something we need to make conscious efforts to change. If this work had been telling some new stories and sharing new perspectives, it could have been a far more enriching and worthwhile experience.

This has probably been a slightly more rambling review than my normal Reading List posts – I think simply because this book hasn’t left a particularly strong impression on me. My main thoughts are something like ‘I’m happy it exists but I wouldn’t want to read it again’, and ‘who is missing from these stories, and why?’ I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts about this book which I feel strangely torn about. Is there a book out there that does what I wish this one had? Please do share any and all recommendations!

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