It’s hard to describe sex, perhaps especially good sex. But with her debut book, the explosive non-fiction title Three Women, Lisa Taddeo is giving it a shot. ‘She was coming but it didn’t feel like herself coming. It felt like some other woman,’ Lisa writes at one point. ‘A woman who wasn’t as scared or lonely. She screamed out, moaned as the old Lina was dying, a new one was being born.’
Lisa spent eight long years researching and writing Three Women, but you’ll likely race through it in a couple of days. It is, as Marian Keyes pointed out on Twitter, ‘as gripping as the most gripping thriller’. Gwyneth Paltrow took to Instagram to say, ‘I literally could not put it down... Wow.’ The most hotly anticipated book of the summer, it tells the real stories of three women’s sexual desire: what drives it, where it came from, how it plays out. There’s Maggie, who claims to have had a relationship with her married English teacher while still at high school (he was later acquitted in court). There’s the beautiful Sloane, whose husband enjoys watching her have sex with other men. And then there’s Lina, a frustrated wife and mother who reconnects with a teenage boyfriend (who has grown into a man she sees as a sex god) after her husband stops kissing her.
Lisa, a petite and friendly 39-year-old born in New Jersey, initially intended to examine men’s desire, too, but she found it difficult to get to the heart of the issue with those she encountered. ‘The issue with most people is that there’s an ego involved,’ she explains when I meet her at the office of her London publisher. ‘I was looking for straightness and honesty.’ She trawled the US looking for people who had the openness needed to take part in such an exposing project. Eventually, she identified her three female subjects after posting signs ‘on slot machines in New Orleans and bathrooms in Indiana’, scouring local newspapers and even moving to live in towns she thought might be fruitful.
She had left New York, where she was a successful freelance journalist and short story writer, soon after securing the book deal, aged 28. She wanted to devote herself entirely to Three Women. ‘My friends were like, “What the fuck are you doing?”,’ she recalls. She had recently lost her parents, to whom she was ‘insanely close’ – her father was killed in a car crash when she was 23; her mother died of cancer when she was 28 – and she hadn’t yet met the man who would become her husband. ‘I don’t mean to be tragic,’ she says, ‘but I had lost my family and that gave me the space to leave and to do this book. I was particularly drawn to these stories because of the pain in them. I had been so wildly alone for so long, alone in my grief.’
There is pain in the stories of desire, it’s true, but there are also passages that are deeply erotic, with frank descriptions of female orgasm and non-monogamous sex. The usually offhand phrase ‘one thing led to another’ becomes genuinely meaningful as Lisa describes the moment a threesome materialises: ‘The individuals involved can rarely tell you the precise moment. That’s because it’s impossible. One would have to admit something that feels unsavory, alien. A husband who desires to enter another body... A wife who wants to see her husband want someone else, so that she may want him as much as she’d like to.’ For Lisa and her three women, female desire isn’t straightforward – particularly within a society where men have more power. ‘I’ve always been drawn to the power struggle and the fact that I think women are biologically disadvantaged, in the romantic sense,’ she says. ‘The main biological aspect is that we are meant to reproduce: so the woman is supposed to stay home with the child and the man is meant to spread his seed.’
All three women have experienced some kind of sexual trauma – and their desire exists alongside that. That’s the reality for most women, says Lisa. ‘I would say that at least 85% of the women who have read the book have told me that something happened to them,’ she points out. What other common themes did she discover, I ask? After all, these are just the three women who made it into the book; she spoke to dozens more as she carried out her research. ‘The waiting around, the waiting for a man. Or waiting for something, anything. So many women are just waiting, thinking, “When this happens, my life will begin.”
There is an emotional honesty to the book that is sometimes almost painful to read: Lina’s desperate texts to her ambivalent lover will be cringingly familiar to many, and Maggie’s realisation that she’s been screwed over by an older man is bleakly predictable. There are also moments of beauty – it’s very rare to come across such bright and clear descriptions of sex, longing and lust, and they offer a unique insight into the hearts, souls and bodies of women. When Lisa began researching the book, she spent time examining sex divorced from emotion. ‘I watched women having sex with machines; women masturbating in front of laptops and men paying on the other side,’ she says. ‘It was interesting and you could write about it for a couple of pages but, at book length, it’s “So what?”. It’s just guys jerking off – that’s boring.’
Instead, she focuses on interrogating all-encompassing desire – the messiness, romance and peril of it. She bookends the three women’s stories with anecdotes about her late, beloved mother. ‘I’d told these women’s stories, I’d gotten into granular descriptions of these women’s desires and sex lives, and I wanted to put myself and my family on the chopping block in some sense,’ she explains. ‘I wanted to say that desire and pain are universal – because they are.’
'Three Women’ by Lisa Taddeo is published by Bloomsbury on 9 July, and will be available to order on Amazon here.