The American author Lisa Taddeo would like some breakfast. But our waiter is thwarting her. “We don’t serve food in this part of the hotel, ma’am,” he says, adding that breakfast has finished when she suggests we move. “Is nothing available?” she persists. He barely restrains a sigh. “Is a croissant OK?” “Perfect!” she says, triumphant. With another sigh, he disappears in search of what Taddeo describes as “the illicit croissant”. She then leans over and whispers, “When he comes back I’m gonna freak him out and ask if I can now have scrambled eggs.”
In the past year, Taddeo has gone from being a relatively little known journalist to one of the most celebrated authors of 2019, thanks to her extraordinary debut book about women’s appetites and desires, and how men frustrate and warp them. Three Women, which has been a bestseller in the US and the UK, tells the true stories of Maggie, Lina and Sloane, each of whom, for utterly personal and yet profoundly relatable reasons, has a complicated understanding of their own needs. Maggie alleges she had a sexual relationship with her high school teacher, Aaron Knodel, and we meet her as she’s dealing with the emotional and legal aftermath. After being raped by three classmates as a teenager, Lina married a cold, undemonstrative man, and is now, as a mother of two, embarking on a frantic affair with an old boyfriend. Elegant, privileged Sloane has sex with other people so her husband can get a thrill from watching.
Taddeo spent more than eight years on the book, crossing America six times in search of her subjects. Even having a baby didn’t break her stride: she simply strapped her infant daughter into her sling and headed into bars in North Dakota, asking strangers if they would talk to her about their sex lives. “I don’t know if it made it more or less creepy that I had a baby with me. Probably more so,” she says with a laugh. At least, she adds, the baby’s presence generally reassured people she wasn’t propositioning them.
Once she found her subjects, she spent months with them, even moving to their towns to be part of their daily lives. Her husband, Jackson Waite, a screenwriter, moved with her, taking on jobs in the various towns to keep them afloat: “He has a degree in fine art and photography, and he used it to make Christmas pictures in K-Mart when we were in Indiana. He was quite good at it! He often believed in the book more than I did,” she says.
Taddeo’s immersion in her subjects’ lives is apparent in the amount of detail in the book, giving her lyrical reportage the depth of fiction. “Maggie would say, ‘So then we started kissing.’ And I’d say, ‘Wait, back up. Where were you sitting? What did you smell like? What were you wearing?’ I knew how interior I wanted to get.”
Her efforts paid off: the book has been a huge success. Rachel Cooke in the Observer described it as “the best book on women and desire I have ever come across”. Dave Eggers wrote that it was “one of the most riveting, assured and scorchingly original debuts I’ve ever read”. (This was particularly gratifying: as a journalist, Taddeo had tried for years to write for Eggers’ literary journal, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern.) The book feels ready made for a TV series, which is precisely what it is becoming: Taddeo, along with Waite, are adapting it for the US cable network Showtime.
For Taddeo, who spent almost a decade isolating herself in research, the very public reaction has been astonishing. “I thought I was writing a quiet little book, I really did. So the whole thing has been shocking. I’m shocked.” She puts the success down largely to luck, but the book sparks such passions, especially among women, that there is obviously more to it. When I posted a photo of the book on Instagram with a rapt caption about my love for it, around three-quarters of my female friends agreed with me, while the rest told me I’d lost my mind.
“We don’t want to see ourselves sometimes. That’s where the vitriol comes from, I think. I’ve always liked to see myself in books. When I read Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behaviour I was like, ‘Oh yeah. These women are fucked up, too!’ But some people are like, ‘Those people are fucked up – I’m not like them.’ And maybe there are people who aren’t fucked up over desire, but I haven’t met them yet,” Taddeo says.
In each of the women’s sections, which are told in alternating chapters, Taddeo drills down into the nuances. In the story of Maggie, which is probably the most instantly compelling, she blasts apart the cliches that shape the media coverage of so many sex abuse cases – Maggie, the child of alcoholics, was described as “troubled”, Knodel, North Dakota’s teacher of the year in 2014, was “a family man”. But Maggie’s family, we learn, was very close and loving, and Knodel was phoning her for late-night chats, after his family was asleep. Even those who believed Maggie’s story tell Taddeo, “She asked for it.” “But to me, Maggie Wilken did not ask for it. She accepted it, the way any child accepts any decoration, any gift,” Taddeo writes. Meanwhile, the first time Sloane watched her husband having sex with another woman, she felt “her actual soul melt out and skitter from the room”. But then she began to enjoy their open relationship and the complicated feeling of control over her husband it gave her: “She knew he liked to abdicate his power. She was happy to please him.”
Some reviewers suggested the book was helped by the cresting interest in the #MeToo movement, but Three Women feels like a counterweight to all the discussions of sexual harassment and assault. While #MeToo focused on men’s unrestrained sexual desire and self-entitlement, Three Women is about how women control their own impulses to the point they become utterly divorced from them. “Men can frighten us, other women can frighten us, and sometimes we worry so much about what frightens us that we wait to have an orgasm until we are alone. We pretend to want things we don’t want so nobody can see us not getting what we need,” Taddeo writes in a pair of typical punch-to-the-gut sentences.
“The thing with #MeToo is that when we talk so much about what we don’t want we’re not talking about what we do want,” she says. “I think people tend towards the extremes [when talking about #MeToo]. If you’re in the middle saying, ‘Well, you know, there’s nuance’, everyone’s like, ‘No there’s not!’ But there is. And in Maggie’s story especially I wanted to look at that. To not explore nuance in that situation would not be true to her story.” Rather than black and white, Taddeo’s book focuses forensically on the emotional greys. And, for that reason, it probably reflects a more universal female experience.
In person, Taddeo is larkier and more self-deprecating than she comes across in her writing, often making fun of her own phrasings (“God, I sound so – ugh!”). When I ask how the success of the book has changed her life, she says, “Other than that I get to fly around the world, not at all. My anxiety is still at fever pitch. I’m always wildly fearful about life and death.”
Taddeo was born and raised in New Jersey. Her father died unexpectedly when she was 23, and within the next seven years she also lost her mother, her aunt, her uncle and her dog. “So I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop,” she says. As a result, she always travels with her daughter, who is now four. “I haven’t been away from her for a single night since she’s been born, and that’s not about pure motherly love – it’s about how, if I’m not there, I can’t control the situation,” she says.
While Taddeo’s life hasn’t changed, her subjects’ have. She is still in frequent contact with them and, before publication, was concerned about how Maggie, the most vulnerable of the trio, would be affected. Knodel was acquitted of three of the charges against him – the other two were dropped after the judge ruled there had been a mistrial. As a result Maggie, unlike Lina and Sloane, wanted her real name to be used in the book; she felt that her story had been dismissed, but now was the moment she could make herself heard. And that is exactly what has happened: since publication, Maggie and Taddeo have received thousands of messages from other young women who have gone through similar experiences. After years of being called a slut and a homewrecker, Maggie told Taddeo, the book has given her closure. Neither Knodel nor his lawyers have contacted Taddeo. I tell her this surprises me, as I can’t understand how she was able to write about a sexual relationship between Maggie and her teacher, given that he was acquitted. Taddeo smiles and says, with the suggestion of heavy understatement, “There was a lot of legal vetting. Lots of insertion of words like ‘allegedly.’ But it’s funny, only British readers ask me about that. Maybe in the US we’re more, ‘Whatever!’”
Lina has largely ignored the book, preferring instead to concentrate on her new relationship and not look back, Taddeo says. I ask about Sloane. Surely, I say, people in her small town have recognised her. “Mmm it’s been a little tricky. Let’s just say no comment,” she says.
Taddeo generally prefers to read fiction; authors such as Lucia Berlin, Tessa Hadley, William Trevor and Elena Ferrante give her “the deep interiority” she looks for in storytelling. So it’s perhaps not surprising that she has written a non-fiction book that feels like a novel. But she has always been adept at mixing the genres: in 2008 she caused a minor media sensation with her Esquire article imagining the final days of Heath Ledger (Esquire called it “reported fiction”). As she was working on Three Women, she continued to jump back and forth over the border between fiction and reportage: in the lulls when she was waiting to find another subject, or to hear back from Sloane, she knocked out a novel and a collection of short stories. Both were bought by her publisher.
The success of Three Women is a testament to Taddeo’s commitment but also a sign of how many women recognise that their desires aren’t met, and how relieved they are that someone is vocalising that. In that sense, the book is both a triumph of writing and a tragedy for women.
“Totally. I wasn’t surprised by much during my research, but I was surprised at how strongly people related to it,” says Taddeo.
The interview and croissant are finished, and she manages to get a coffee out of the reluctant waiter. She puts two, then three, then four sugar cubes in it, then looks up guiltily:
“This is terrible, I’m sorry,” she says.
I tell her she does not need to apologise for wanting some sugar.
“I apologise for everything,” she says. “As a woman, I’ve apologised my whole life.”
• Three Women is published by Bloomsbury (RRP £16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.
Source: The Guardian