Lisa Taddeo is the hottest ticket in the literary world this summer thanks to her brutally unflinching look at female desire.
Whether you are a man curious to know how the woman in your life thinks and feels, or a woman who longs to hear someone articulate the thoughts you’ve never even admitted to yourself, Three Women should be on your bedside table.
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Lisa baulks at some critics calling it a ‘beach read’. “I am like… really?” she laughs. But she coos in agreement when I recall how I had to take a breather, given the rawness of the women’s stories. “The idea that they gave me as much as they did continues to shock me,” she says.
Based on almost a decade’s research, the book tells the true story about the sex lives of three American women. Lina, a home-maker and mother who is starved of affection and begins an affair; Maggie, a 17-year-old student who falls for her married high-school teacher; and Sloane, gorgeous and successful, happily married to a man who likes to watch her have sex with other men and women.
Lisa drove across America six times to talk to ordinary women from different regions and backgrounds.
The biggest lesson she learned from researching female desire, she says, is that “we are all so shockingly similar when it comes to our deepest fears and wants and needs – but a lot of people don’t want to confront the things about life and themselves that are hardest to confront.”
The main difference between male and female desire, she says, is that women want, whereas men need.
She writes: “Men did not merely want. Men needed… Presidents forfeit glory for blow-jobs. Everything a man takes a lifetime to build he may gamble for a moment. I have never entirely subscribed to the idea that powerful men have such outsize egos that they cannot suppose that they will ever be caught; rather, I think that the desire is so strong in the instant that everything else – family, home, career – melts down… into nothing.”
Lisa also describes how “male desire is more compartmentalised whereas female desire is more free-flowing and it’s all over our brains”.
In the book she writes how “our inheritance of living under the male gaze for centuries is that heterosexual women often look at another woman the way a man would”. And she describes how “female desire can be just as bullish as male desire”.
What most interested her, however, was when desire could not be controlled. “That was where I found the most magnificence, the most pain,” she writes. “It resembled pedalling a bicycle backward, the agony and futility, and, finally, the entry into another world altogether.”
After accumulating a wealth of research, she believes the two things men don’t understand about women is how much and how often women think about sex and desire, but also “how a man’s indifference can be so wounding to a woman.”
In the book she describes how Lina admits to wanting to punch her husband for failing to look up from his magazine and notice her naked. It comes after months of not being physically touched by him.
In another passage, she describes how Lina learned how to deal with the emotional pain of feeling unloved by watching her mother. As Lisa writes: “Lina’s mom used to ask Lina’s dad to do stuff around the house in a way that Lina, even as a young girl, recognised as her mother’s way of making up for not being loved enough. Lina has done the same thing with Ed [her husband]. If he doesn’t try to make love to her for a full month she will ask him to clean the garage.”
As Lisa explains: “What I would like men to take away about women from this book is that often we just want to be acknowledged.”
She says: “Everyone wants that. For anyone who holds the position of power in the relationship, it’s just about saying to the other person ‘I see you there’ and ‘even if I don’t love you or want to be with you’, like with an ex-wife, ‘I am still going to take you into account’.”
She draws on a personal experience with her own husband to illustrate how even an unanswered text message can cause a woman hurt.
“Before my husband and I were dating, for example, we were talking almost every day, and one day he just didn’t respond to me for several days and I was really hurt. When I finally asked him about it, he said: ‘I am so sorry I didn’t respond – I was just busy with work. If you ever did that to me I would be so upset.’ And then he did it to me again, even though he was in love with me. I still talk to him about that. I still say to him, ‘Why did you not write back?’ He says he didn’t know that I was waiting for it or that I wanted it so much. And I was scared of showing him how much I wanted his attention.”
The most important thing is that a woman feels loved, desired and wanted: “Which is why Sloane is so interesting,” Lisa says. “Her marriage was a happy one because her husband said to her every day ‘I love you’ and ‘you are my fantasy’ and I think that is such an important thing. That is almost something any man or woman would want – to know that they are in a relationship with someone who feels that they are the best looking, most exciting person in the world.”
Even though the same person might also be saying, “I want you to have sex with someone else in front of me?” I ask, referring to how Sloane’s husband encourages her to enjoy threesomes.
“Well that’s the thing,” says Lisa. “She knew that if she didn’t do it her husband wasn’t going to leave her or love her less, it was just something that turned him on. And she was confused because she did like the idea of doing something like that, but at the same time it’s confusing because it is a different thing than many of us do. So in that respect it was difficult, but still a happy [experience].”
In a moment of shame, Sloane’s friend questions whether it bothers her that her husband wants her to have sex with other people. Yet she seems the happiest of the three women. Lisa believes that “fear of other women’s judgment drives a lot of the way we talk about desire”.
She says: “We are afraid when things smack a little too close to home so we judge others rather than trying to relate.” And yet women “who are judged are often the ones who don’t judge others as readily”.
But it was the lesson she learned from hearing women’s stories that bust the biggest myth of all.
When it comes to women, she says: “The lack of communication is stunning and it goes on and on and on.” She adds: “It’s funny because it’s such a cliche that women communicate and men don’t. From what I have seen, for the most part is that there is a lot of just not paying attention to the way that you can communicate to someone – to simply get them to understand you – and not just as two separate forces going at each other. Communication is vital.”
After all, she says: “It’s relatability that moves us to empathise.”
‘Three Women’ by Lisa Taddeo, published by Bloomsbury, is out now, priced €21
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