Origin stories are rarely pretty. You can just imagine the carnage Grendel’s birth wrought on his beastly mother, or how the wolf might have had difficulty nursing Rome’s purported founders, Romulus and Remus. Lisa Taddeo’s “Animal” contains just as much as a damaged woman in her late 30s spins her own ugly, cracked but loving tale to her newborn daughter.

The woman, Joan, has just moved cross-country from Manhattan to Los Angeles after her sometime lover Vic shot himself to death beside the restaurant table where Joan was dining with another lover. Joan tells us bits and pieces of her own trauma while she settles into a strange little community in Topanga Canyon alongside former rap-star Kevin, handsome River, who lives in a yurt, and landlord Leonard, degenerating from both Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

We realize that she’s speaking to her baby when she begins saying things such as, “My dream is for you to have many such moments” and “I can tell you a lot about sex with a man to whom you are not attracted.” Uh-oh, we think, because Joan also describes how she uses her beauty and sexuality to her advantage, her manipulation of everyone who crosses her path and her inability to distinguish between danger and satiation, because it’s only when she’s close to the former that she can feel the latter. She drinks, smokes weed, takes pills and turns down balanced meals in favor of bowls of pastina that remind her of her coldly glamorous Italian mother.

We also learn early on that Joan is searching for a woman named Alice, and that Vic’s daughter Eleanor is on a mission to kill Joan, something Vic’s enraged and unhinged wife, Mary, relates in expletive-laden phone calls and text messages. While all of these women appear to be at odds, one thing binds them together: Every one of them, even Joan’s elderly grandmother, experiences a violent sexual episode.

“Animal” is not an easy or, at first, a coherent novel. There’s some thematic overlap between the book and “Three Women,” Taddeo’s 2019 nonfiction bestseller about the sexual histories of three people. The subject of culpability in extramarital affairs comes up in both, particularly how husbands tend to get a free pass while their female paramours bear the brunt of the blame.

For all the harrowing scenes in “Animal” — the grisly miscarriages and the bloody childbirth, to name a few — the most shocking might be the weird and disturbing scene in which Joan conceives her daughter. And yet, Joan tells her daughter, “I want you to know you were born of a tender union, a short but kind one. It was meaningful in the bedroom if nowhere else. And it was the first time I used a man for something I actually wanted and not for something I thought I needed.” The lesson here is that women do not have to be bound by the desires of men. That women can and should dictate their own stories on their own terms.

Bethanne Patrick is the editor, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”


By Lisa Taddeo

336 pp. Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster. $27.99