Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, May 6, 2019

Monday, May 6, 2019: Maximum Shelf: Three Women

Avid Reader Press: Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

Avid Reader Press: Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

Avid Reader Press: Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

Avid Reader Press: Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

Three Women

by Lisa Taddeo

Lisa Taddeo is not a soothsayer: she's a writer whose work has appeared in well-regarded magazines and anthologies like Best American Sports Writing. But if she's not clairvoyant, how did she know, when she began her eight years of work on Three Women, that the book would arrive at the exact moment when the #MeToo-grappling world so desperately needs it?

After driving across the country six times with her eyes peeled for subjects willing to talk about their sex lives "on the record and without holding back," Taddeo was lucky enough to gain the trust of three women. In an author's note, she says that she "spent thousands of hours" with her subjects, including by phone, text and e-mail when it was impossible for her to be physically present. (Take note: Three Women contains explicit sex scenes.) She distilled those hours of storytelling into dexterous and suspenseful third-person narratives, devoting about a half dozen alternating chapters to each woman.

That Taddeo uses Maggie May Wilken's real name (she changes those of her other subjects) reflects a grim truth: Maggie's name is part of the public record. When she was a 17-year-old senior at West Fargo High, she began an affair with her English teacher, Aaron Knodel, a married father in his late 20s. Throughout their sexual relationship, Aaron kept his pants on, apparently believing that this made the affair only half as illicit. Aaron told Maggie that he wanted to leave his wife. He and Maggie exchanged "I love yous" and countless texts, one of which his wife intercepted. Aaron broke off the affair and all contact with Maggie. Several years later, she is still a wreck, seeing a therapist who writes her prescriptions and finding it impossible to continue at North Dakota State University. When Maggie learns that Aaron has been named North Dakota's Teacher of the Year, she finally tells her parents and the police what happened. At his trial, Aaron is found not guilty.

Unlike Maggie, Lina, who lives in southern Indiana, is the instigator and in her early 30s when she begins her affair. The stay-at-home mom told herself that if her husband's sexual disinterest in her dragged on for three humiliating months, she would take action. In fact, the reader will come to learn that Lina is defined by her agency: she gets a prescription for her depression, can pull a last-minute babysitter out of a hat, and joins a women's discussion group, where she announces that she is sleeping with her high school boyfriend and has asked her husband for a separation. Although Lina presents this to the group as good news, her chapters find her in not just love but a constant state of agitation: When will she see her lover again? The guy makes it clear that he has no plans to leave his wife. Lina isn't fooling herself: "She knows the truth even as she tries to shut it out: he is terrible to her."

Maggie surely would have benefited from a better support system and Lina from the diversion and economic independence offered by a job. But does Sloane need anything at all? She works at a Newport, R.I., restaurant that she co-owns with her husband, Richard, who adores sleeping with her. The sex she's having outside the marriage is rewarding for all involved: "It turned Richard on to watch his wife with another man in his presence, or sometimes it could be just her and the other man while Richard was working. Sloane would send verbal and video updates via text message." She has an epiphany while reading Fifty Shades of Grey: "If previously she'd been simply accommodating her husband's desire without being true to her own, now Sloane had a new lens through which to see their arrangement. She was a submissive, and a submissive acquiesced to the demands of the dominant." Put another way: her sex life is making exactly none of its participants unhappy, although some harsh words from one bedmate's spousal equivalent do give Sloane's conscience a workout.

Would Sloane have been less comfortable in the submissive role if her parents had given her more attention when she was spindly from the adolescent bulimia they somehow never picked up on? Would Maggie have had the strength to run from her teacher if her parents hadn't been alcoholics? Would Lina's lover have had less of a hold on her if he hadn't suddenly stopped phoning her in high school after hearing rumors that she'd slept with three guys at a party (they'd actually drugged and raped her)? Implicitly posed by each woman's narrative are these questions, but Taddeo isn't asking them. In her prologue, she writes, "I set out to register the heat and sting of female want so that men and other women might more easily comprehend before they condemn." Only a reader with a bum ticker would leave Three Women more freighted with reproach than with compassion.

Make no mistake: readers will judge these women's choices. But the point is that the stories of Maggie, Lina and Sloane are offered here without judgment, which allows readers to objectively view their multivalent experiences. With Three Women, a heavyweight and a knockout both, Taddeo makes it possible for each woman to be the agent of her own storytelling, and the book's very existence insists that they are to be believed. It doesn't get much more #MeToo than that. --Nell Beram

Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster, $27, hardcover, 320p., 9781451642292, July 9, 2019

Avid Reader Press: Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

Lisa Taddeo: Writing the Truth of Women’s Desire

(photo: J. Waite)

Lisa Taddeo has contributed to New York magazine, Esquire, Elle, Glamour and many other publications. Her nonfiction has been included in the anthologies Best American Sports Writing and Best American Political Writing, and her short stories have won two Pushcart Prizes. She lives with her husband and daughter in Connecticut. Three Women, her first book, will be published in July 2019 and is the inaugural title from Simon & Schuster's Avid Reader Press imprint.

Let's get the obvious question out of the way: What was the genesis of Three Women?

The genesis was to take the pulse of sexuality and desire in American today. A sort of updating of Gay Talese's Thy Neighbor’s Wife, but from a female perspective. Desire is at once all we think about and talk about, and at the same time our most slippery secret. I wanted to explore the nuance of that intersection.

I began by talking to both men and women, but the men's stories, though intriguing, began to bleed together. The throttle of their desire often ended once a conquest was achieved, whereas for the women, it was utterly the opposite. Of course, this is not to generalize. But the three individuals who ended up sticking out to me, who were the most willing to tell their stories in ways that revealed their desire, happened to be three women--these specific three women. There were several subjects who dropped out, the most notable one about seven months into my research, when she began to fear her new relationship would suffer if her past were found out.

In your prologue, you say that you drove across the country six times in order to find your subjects. Can you share a bit more about the search?

I used every mode I could think of, from the most analogue to the most modern. I posted on Craigslist. I posted on Facebook. I posted on message boards. I handed out business cards in sleepy surf towns, taped messages on Starbucks bulletin boards, university bulletin boards, gas station windows, at churches and temples and grocery stores. I chased down newspaper stories of jilted lovers carrying guns.

I read about Maggie in a newspaper story. I was in Medora, North Dakota, when I read about the trial. I called her mother's house and introduced myself, and the next day I was driving to Fargo. I found Lina after moving to the Midwest, where I started a women's discussion group. Right away Lina's story spoke to me. The third woman, Sloane, I learned about through a mutual acquaintance. With each of them I'd like to think it was as much forging a friendship as it was finding a subject. In two of the cases, I moved to be near them, for a little over a year in each instance. It was in this way that I was able to most acutely experience their stories.We worked out together, had coffee, had drinks, had dinner, had lunch, went shopping, went to meet the people they were seeing. Sometimes I waited in the car nearby or followed on my own behind them.

You must have had to embellish at least some of the sex scenes in the book. What was your approach to writing the sex scenes, and was writing them more or less difficult (or fun) than writing other passages?

The sex scenes are not embellished. Lina's, for example, are nearly verbatim from her memory. She would text or call me or send me a message on Facebook on the way home from an interlude with Aidan. What I found so alluring and gorgeous about Lina was her honesty about sex. About all parts of it. She was so enthralled with that man when I was profiling her that she wanted to get everything down so she herself could remember it forever.

With the other two women, it was not as easy. Maggie for obvious reasons--it was difficult for her to speak about something nobody had believed her about, and something about which she later felt shame. And with Sloane, I made a conscious choice to depict her scenes in a less sexually explicit manner, because for Sloane the sex was sort of an obvious thing. She is a sexual person, but her instances of sexuality speak less of her than the other parts about her. Also, because Sloane's story from the outset sounds as though it will be the most lurid, I wanted the other parts of her to speak more loudly.

Regarding fun--no, not at all. I think writing about sex is hard. You don't want to be clinical and you don't want to be pornographic and you don't want to be puritanical, so finding an in-between is difficult. I wanted the sex scenes to be as real as though they were being viewed by the reader, but not gratuitously so. Not to be titillated. But rather, to be empathically understood.

You write in your prologue, "I set out to register the heat and sting of female want so that men and other women might more easily comprehend before they condemn." It's a worthy undertaking, but (I'm devil's advocating here) do you think some readers will fixate on the fact that these women's sexual desires brought them varying degrees of headache and heartache?

Of course, and yet I firmly believe that's the whole point. That comprehending someone's heartache is, unfortunately, very often the only way to stop condemning them. Maggie, Sloane and Lina want to be loved, and they want to love, and they do and they have had moments of exhilaration and have given up a lot for those moments. They want to live life, even when it goes against their religion, their families, their societies. I very much admire people who forgo blazing experiences in favor of "the right path," but I also admire the polar opposite. And these women lived between both poles, as I think we all do at varying points in our lives. --Nell Beram

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