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Women and desire: It’s about so much more than sex

Elizabeth Flock is a journalist who covers gender and justice, and is the author of “The Heart is a Shifting Sea: Love and Marriage in Mumbai.”

The English novelist George Eliot, who used a pen name because of the prevailing sexism of the 19th century — her real name was Mary Ann Evans — once wrote that “there is no private life which is not determined by a wider public life.” She believed that people act according to the conditions of their time, that, in fact, we are endlessly impressionable, influenced by everything around us. This feels true, but it is hard to know for sure: Our private lives so often remain unseen, unstudied and unwritten.

Not so in Lisa Taddeo’s “Three Women,” an extraordinary study of female desire, eight years in the making, that intimately examines the sex lives of three real-life women from behind closed doors. There is Maggie, a North Dakota teenager in love with (and seduced by) her teacher; Lina, a homemaker from Indiana whose husband won’t kiss her but who fills the gaps with a torrid affair; and Sloane, a sleek Rhode Island restaurateur whose husband likes to watch her have sex with other people, though she isn’t sure she likes it much herself.

A longtime contributor to New York magazine and Esquire, Taddeo began the book as a study of male desire but soon found that the men’s stories ran together, because they all seemed to end once reaching an orgasm. By contrast, the stories of the women she met began with the object of their desire, and “there was complexity and beauty and violence even, in the way the women experienced the same event.”

To find these three women, Taddeo drove across the United States six times, posted fliers in diners, casinos and coffee shops, and even started a discussion group at the Kinsey Institute, which researches human sexuality and relationships. In some cases, she moved to the women’s towns to interview them over long periods of time. To write this kind of nonfiction — it’s true, but reads like a novel — Taddeo smartly employs not only interviews but also diary entries, legal documents, letters, emails and text messages. The result is a book as exhaustively reported and as elegantly written as Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” or Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s “Random Family.”

Lisa Taddeo wanted to write about female desire. It set her on an eight-year odyssey.

From the start, Taddeo makes clear that all three stories are limited to the women’s perspectives alone. This is especially apparent in the story of Maggie, where Taddeo chooses not to give Maggie’s teacher, who is accused of having a sexual relationship with her as a minor, an opportunity to respond to the allegation because he had already defended himself in court. One-sided reporting can have its limitations, yet we still learn much from the narrow lens of these three women — for example, how dramatically a single event can wreck a woman’s life: a rape, a rumor, an invitation. We watch how the domino effect of family trauma can contort a girl, so that as a woman she never gets what she needs. And it becomes clear how much personal stories of desire can be shaped by the wider stories of our culture; Lina sees the kiss of her lover as akin to the true-love kiss in “The Princess Bride,” Maggie’s teacher compares their illicit relationship to the vampiric love in “Twilight,” and Sloane finds solace in reading “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

As we follow these women’s attempts to find satisfaction, intimate details abound: of just how a woman prepares her face to meet a lover, of the special power gained by secret meeting places, of the feel of bodies on bodies, skin on skin. In Taddeo’s world almost anything can be pregnant with desire: a restaurant, a river, a classroom. And an orgasm can often feel like death — not the joyous “la petite mort” of the French but instead what Lina experiences as “an acute, carving pain” that makes her feel both “thrilled” and “lobotomized.” (The portrayal evokes the iconic scene in D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” in which she bemoans an orgasm as “how cruel, for she was all open to him and helpless!”)

But it is this desire, however painful, that saves the women — even if it also derails them. Desire breaks up the mundanity of Lina’s life with her husband, gives Sloane a shape to her amorphous identity, and delivers Maggie from the muddy browns and grays of Fargo, albeit just for a little while.

Taddeo’s language is at its best — sublime, even — when she describes the pain of desire left unfulfilled. Lina feels literal shooting pain at her husband’s lack of interest and an anger so intense she imagines “destroying his face with her fist, utterly,” so that it turns into “a Stonehenge of pink bone.” Sloane is overcome by an unbearable emptiness after seeing her husband have sex with another woman, so much that “she could feel it, her actual soul melt out and skitter from the room.” And after Maggie’s teacher ends their relationship, she experiences a feeling like the bitter end of winter, so that all that remains is “the final and lingering frost.”

As the book progresses, the men in these women’s lives appear to be not only deficient but nearly monstrous. At times, Taddeo eviscerates them with what seems like a kind of gender essentialism, as if men are fixed creatures, deploying cutting remarks about how they “need” instead of “want.” She is especially scathing when she describes Maggie’s teacher leaving love notes in her copy of “Twilight,” to ensure that she sees his seductions (of a child) as a kind of fairy tale. “Can you imagine,” Taddeo writes, dryly. It is unsettling.

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Meanwhile, Lina’s lover, Aidan, eventually turns away from her because, as Taddeo has already told us, as a man he is uninterested once he has secured his conquest. Sloane’s choices — which we see are really her husband’s choices unfairly foisted upon her — lead to unhappy results.

Taddeo is nearly as unforgiving when she writes of how women oppress other women: via gossip and rumor, through the careful deployment of a wounding word like “whore,” and in expectations that women live for others instead of themselves. These three women do live for themselves, and in the end, they are duly punished for it.

If there is anything wrong with this arresting, provocative debut, it is that at times the stories feel too explicit, almost voyeuristic. But can a book about desire ever be too explicit? In fact, the most carnal scenes reveal the most about what these women want and how complicated that want can be. Even if others are determined to keep it from them.

By Lisa Taddeo

Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster.
320 pp. $27