‘Three Women’ Takes a Long, Close Look at Sex Lives

“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.” She accepts the terms without much rancor, amazed to find her needs met at all. The other women are more lost; their notion of what they need has become inextricably tangled up with what they have been taught to want and learned to tolerate.

Is it apparent what Taddeo herself wants for this book? She has said she intended to take the pulse of American sexuality, updating Gay Talese’s 1980 study of the sexual revolution, “Thy Neighbor’s Wife,” from a female perspective. But this is not a book interested in capturing a zeitgeist — there is no mention of #MeToo, gender roles or the wider world at all. The focus stays trained on the women — their childhoods, their relationships with men and their mothers — bookended by sections in which the author expresses vague hopes of kindling empathy in her readers.

Her intentions partly feel wobbly because the language of the book is so inconsistent, full of odd homilies — an assembly line of truly terrible metaphors. I was awe-struck by their number, dottiness, incomprehensibility. How does a big oven resemble, as Taddeo writes, “a new marriage”? How can wine taste like “cool sneezes”? What, in fact, are “cool sneezes”? Have you ever met a man who “exudes the pale sweetness of a cashew”? Or found, that when he turns friendly, he resembles “a gleaming, avuncular oyster”? These are not the worst offenders. They are, in the interest of space, the shortest ones. The most grievous is a paragraph-long comparison of a certain kind of narrative of passion to riding a bicycle backward into another dimension (a dimension to which I would have occasionally liked to consign this book).

These are not merely cosmetic flaws, or matters of taste. To see language treated so shabbily shakes the reader’s confidence; if a writer can’t work her way around a sentence or land a metaphor, what assurance have we that she can parse her subjects’ traumas, their complex, sometimes inchoate yearnings?

The faux-literary language seems larded on to distract from the book’s essential pessimism about power and conflict between men and women. That harshness, however, is a great strength of the book. The boldness in “Three Women” — and its missteps — are both born of the risks Taddeo takes; she is a writer who knows “there’s nothing safer than wanting nothing.”

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