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In her extraordinary book Three Women Lisa Taddeo charts the intimate lives of real American women. Below, we print an extract

In 2010, a young American writer called Lisa Taddeo published an article in New York magazine about the women who work as highly paid hosts and cocktail waitresses the so-called bottle girls in Americas most exclusive clubs. It was (and is) quite an eye-popping piece of immersive journalism; among other things, she managed to interview Rachel Uchitel, a host whose affair with Tiger Woods had recently hit the headlines. At the time, however, its author had no idea in what unlikely direction this report would shortly take her, nor for how long. It was an assignment, just like any other.

Soon after its publication, an editor at Simon & Schuster rang Taddeo and asked if she might consider writing a nonfiction book that connected to it in some way. In what way exactly? He was vague when it came to details. She surmised that it would have to do with sex, but that was about all she knew at this point.

I was grateful for the thought, she says, when we talk on the phone (Taddeo is in New England and Im in London), but up until that point, Id mostly written fiction. I didnt know how to do what he was asking. He was saying: Heres an idea, but you can basically do what you want, which was both kind, and kind of awful. She laughs. It was so open-ended. It was terrifying. My starting point was a place of complete confusion.

By way of encouragement, the editor sent her some nonfiction classics, among them Thy Neighbours Wife, Gay Taleses notorious 1981 exploration of sex culture in 1970s America (Talese, a pioneer of new journalism, ran a massage parlour as part of his research; during the writing of the book, he stayed at a clothing-optional resort). Taddeo, conscientious but curious too, went to see Talese, by then in his late 70s, at his home in New York. It was the first of what would turn out to be several false starts. He said the only way I could come close to matching his so-called masterpiece would be if I went out and slept with married men. Well, I wasnt going to do that. Nor was she tempted to write about the porn industry. I did travel to the San Francisco porn castle [a former armoury owned by a company called kink.com], and it was really wild. I mean, it was full of women having sex. But it just didnt seem that interesting to me. In California, however, something shifted inside her. At my hotel, I had an epiphany. I realised that I wanted to explore the desire behind intimate acts, not sex per se. The trouble was, I needed not only to find subjects, but subjects who were amenable to the idea of me writing about their desires.

What followed consumed the next eight years of her life. As shed anticipated, it wasnt easy to find people who would talk to her or not in the way that she hoped. I posted up signs in bars and casinos and coffee shops and libraries, she says. And I got a lot of good responses. But I also got a lot of men going: hey, do you want to fuck? Trying to find her subjects, she drove across America six times. Her interviewees would often get cold feet, and she would have to start all over again. But when someone struck her as right in the end, she realised it was exclusively the stories of women that she wanted to explore she did not hesitate, moving to wherever they lived for months and even years, embedding with them as if she was a war reporter (given the way some love affairs go, this analogy has a certain aptness). Once she had won their trust, they would talk to her in thousands of hours of conversation about the most intimate parts of their lives, and the most painful.

Taddeo is married, and while she was working on this project, she had a daughter. (My husband had to leave several jobs, she says. He moved with me in the latter stages. But hes a writer, too, and he helped me a lot. Hes almost as involved with this as I am, and hes proud of me because he knows how hard Ive worked.) But in many ways, her life came to belong to these women. The cold-eyed reporter in her never wholly left the room, but she was their friend, confessor and therapist all rolled into one. She was inside their heads, and their hearts.

Still, she continued to worry. Where was this project going? How did it all hang together? Would the quotidian minutes of these womens lives really be of interest to some future reader? Sometimes, she feared that they would not. For the first six years at least, she had no idea what her book was going to be it felt like a lot of meandering or even whether she would be able to finish it. Somehow, though, she kept going. Whatever else happened, she wanted to find a way to honour their honesty and openness. Her hope was though this became apparent to her only gradually that by registering the heat and sting of female want, a door would be opened. Women, she thinks, often pretend to want things they dont actually want, so that nobody can see them failing to get what they need that, or they teach themselves to stop wanting altogether (not wanting anything, as Taddeo observes, is the safest thing in the world). If she could not change this, perhaps she could at least encourage a certain understanding. Why shouldnt these things be spoken of? Why do women still find it so hard to express, let alone to understand, their deepest desires?

Quick guide

Women and sex: landmark books

Alfred C Kinsey and others: Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female (1953)

Based on interviews with 6,000 women, Kinseys controversial report suggested, among other things, that women are less sexually active than men.

Doris Lessing: The Golden Notebook (1962)

A novel notable for its honesty when it comes to the disappointments even liberated women may encounter when they sleep with men.

Boston Womens Health Book Collective: Our Bodies, Ourselves (1973)

This groundbreaking handbook encouraged women to think of themselves no longer as docile and passive in the bedroom.

Erica de Jong: Fear of Flying (1973)

De Jong coined the phrase the zipless fuck in this novel in which a poet decides to indulge her sexual fantasies with a man who isnt her husband.

Shere Hite: The Hite Report on Female Sexuality (1976)

Though her methodology was later criticised, Hite, an American-born sexologist, did useful work busting all the old myths about how women achieve orgasm.

Natalie Angier: Woman: An Intimate Geography (1999)

Angier, a science journalist, won a Pulitzer prize for her celebration of the female body: a book about, as she put it, a rapture grounded firmly in the flesh.

Jane Juska: A Round-Heeled Woman (2003)

In which Juska recounts her quest for a sex life at the age of 67, a mission she kickstarts by placing a personal ad in theNew York Review of Books.

Liv Stromquist: Fruit of Knowledge: The Vulva vs the Patriarchy (2018)

This comic book, by a Swedish cartoonist and activist, unpicks all the ways in which women have been encouraged down the centuries to be ashamed both of their bodies and their desires.

Rachel Cooke

Almost a decade on from that phone call from her editor, Taddeo is about to publish her account of the experiences of the women beside whom she lived for so long. It is called Three Women, and if it is not the best book about women and desire that has ever been written, then it is certainly the best book about the subject that I have ever come across. When I picked it up, I felt Id been waiting half my life to read it; when I put it down, it was as though I had been disembowelled. Each story is highly particular, Taddeo pinning every detail to the page, as if she was a forensic scientist and her book one huge crime scene. Here is Maggie, a North Dakotan who had an affair with her school teacher, and is now, some years later, attempting to prosecute him for his alleged abuse of her. Here is Lina, an Indiana housewife and mother whose husband will no longer kiss her on the mouth, and who is having a compulsive and highly painful affair with her high-school sweetheart. And here is Sloane, who lives a life of some privilege in Rhode Island, where she and her chef husband run a restaurant. He likes to watch her having sex with other men, which is OK because this is something that she doesnt mind doing for him.

But these narratives also achieve a vital universality. There isnt a woman alive who wont recognise her stomach lurching, her heart beating wildly something of what Maggie, Lina and Sloane go through; the gusting, often wildly contradictory impulses that power them like sails. In this sense, reading Three Women is like reading the diary you could never have hoped to write: here is a second-by-second account of all those moments when you felt most ecstatic, and most abject; when you were at your most powerful, and your most weak. It pulses like an artery. It is deeply sad, sometimes. It will make you cry. It has so much to say about womens self-esteem: about where it comes from, and where it goes. And yet, as Taddeo says, there is magnificence in these stories, too. Why shouldnt we be who we really are? Why shouldnt we take what we want if we can? Its hard sometimes to see the passion they had when you know what the cost was, she tells me. But theres a cost to almost everything that is good. Thats part of life.

She found Lina first, having moved to Bloomington, Indiana, the home of the Kinsey Institute. A doctor who answered her ad had been administering a hormone treatment to a group of women there they were losing weight, and feeling different and more beautiful and sexual in their bodies, she says and in a discussion group they attended, there Lina was. Taddeo stayed on for two years, hanging out with her almost every day.

I would sometimes follow her when she was meeting the guy [her lover, with whom she often had sex in her car in a wood by a river], and after they left, I would go to exactly where theyd been to take in the scenery and the smells and the sounds. Completing a draft of Linas story, she sent it to her editor. He loved it though this didnt exactly help. Just do this a couple more times, he said. But it had taken me so long to find her. The exhaustion, the fear After that, I floundered again.

Next, she moved to Rhode Island, captivated by the idea of a resort town that only came alive in the summer. Lots of people there were talking about Sloane and when she finally talked to me about what her life was like, everything else dropped away. Not that I would do it myself, but I had always been interested in swinging.

Finally, there was Maggie: I was in North Dakota, this cowboy part of the country, where I was following up a lead that these immigrant women who worked at a coffee shop during the day were being trucked at night into the oil fields to have sex with men. I was holding the local paper up in front of me, trying to be invisible, and thats where I read about Maggies case against her teacher [see extract, opposite]. The trial had just ended. Two things about it interested me. First, that there had been no penetration. There was a holding back there. Second, that it had ended in his favour [he was acquitted], and yet there were these hours of calls he had made to her late at night.

Taddeo spent 18 months with Sloane, and between three and four years talking to Maggie.

If Three Women is raw, its also lyrical. How much imagination did she use when she came to write about them? None of it is imagined, though I would recall my own experiences; whatever I had in common with them. But you know, they were so eloquent. Sloane is the most detached, but she never paused: she knew [what she wanted to say]. Maggie rattled off everything like it had just happened. As for Lina, she was the most in touch with her sexuality, her pain, her needs. Its Lina I most identify with. Everyone has done what Lina has [been involved with a man who brings them to utter recklessness], even if they dont want to admit to it.

What about the sex? I cant think of another book that manages to be so explicit without also being either distasteful or embarrassing. When I read bad sex writing, its haunting to me. I wanted to find a biological and sensual middle ground: a language that is not scientific, but which is not just graffiti on a wall either. Some women readers have said to me: did it need so much sex? But its not gratuitous. Lina finds herself in these intimate moments. I would do it again. Though its also saddening to me: even if it was gratuitous, why people are so squeamish?

What does she think her book says about where we are now? Taddeo began working on it long before #MeToo; it gestated in a different social and political context from the one into which it will be born. I think #MeToo exists on another plane from desire, she says. Sometimes, they intersect, but for the most part they dont. The issue is that we are talking a lot about what is not OK. We dont want to be raped and molested and cat-called though its kind of wild that men didnt know this already. But were still not talking about what women actually do want. Theres still a fear that if we say what we want, it might not be OK; that it hasnt been okayed by those who make the rules, who are mostly men.

I dont think desire has changed. Its formed, as it always was, by what happened in our past, and with the predilections were born with. What changes is the world outside, not desire itself.

In the prologue to her book, Taddeo recalls her Italian mother, who never spoke about what turned her off or on. Sometimes it seemed that she didnt have any desires of her own, she writes. That her sexuality was merely a trail in the woods, the unmarked kind that is made by boots trampling tall grass. And the boots belonged to my father. The women in her book are not like this. But the mere fact that their stories, routine and ordinary as they are in many respects, strike the reader as hitherto shockingly untold suggests that most still are, and that almost all of us would rather stay silent about what we want than risk an accusation of sluttishness.

While she was writing Three Women, however, it struck Taddeo more than once that not all the disapprobation has to do with men. At Linas discussion group, the other women would often become frustrated with her. They were angry that she wanted more; that she refused to be grateful for what she already had (a house, a husband, two children). As she writes: It felt as though, with desire, no one wanted anyone else, particularly a woman to feel it. Marriage was OK. Marriage was its own prison, its own mortgage. Here is a place for you to lay your head [But] if you fuck around may everything you fear come to pass.

This hasnt only to do with internalised sexism. People often project their deepest anxieties on to others the relationship of a friend or neighbour may be a kind of mirror, in one sense, and an uncomfortable one to boot and this causes them to judge and condemn rather than to be empathetic. This is also another way in which women are kept down. When Hillary Clinton stayed with Bill, despite his affairs, she was reviled for it, says Taddeo. But if she wants him, and she can handle it, why should people have an opinion? Ninety per cent of what I found in peoples responses [to the sex lives of others] had to do with fear.

Even before its publication, Three Women has been highly acclaimed in the US (One of the most riveting, assured and scorchingly original debuts Ive ever read, says the writer Dave Eggers, who finds it impossible to imagine a scenario in which it doesnt turn out to be one of the most important and breathlessly debated books of the year). Nevertheless, I wonder whether Taddeo is nervous about how her book will be received, particularly in a country where conservative values are on the rise again.

Well, my biggest concern is for the women themselves, she says. Maggie was in the public eye already, so we use her real name, and I dont want her to be clobbered all over again. I dont want the real identities of Lina and Sloane to be discovered either. But beyond that, yes, I do worry that people will have both the wrong idea about my intentions, and about the women themselves. Then again, there is a reason why I wrote about them, and in this way, and that mostly had to do with societal reactions to what they were doing. I hope it doesnt happen, but I guess that if readers have the same response, that will only go to prove my point.

Lisa Taddeo: Theres a cost to almost everything that is good. Thats part of life. Photograph: Christopher Beauchamp/The Observer

Book extract: Three Women, by Lisa Taddeo

Maggie Wilkens is a 17-year-old high school senior in North Dakota who has a crush on her English teacher, Aaron Knodel. During the Christmas holidays Knodel began texting Maggie in a way that crossed normal teacher-pupil boundaries.

Maggie walks, atremble, into Knodels speech and debate classroom. This is the first day of school after the break. She hasnt seen her teacher in weeks and yet everything between them is changed. She wonders if its all been in her head. It has, in any case, been in her phone. She worries about how he will act toward her, if hell be distant. She can feel her heart breaking in anticipation. She finds her seat and then she looks at him.

The way he looks at her is absolutely perfect.

He has this way of normalising a situation while also acknowledging the spark. Its hard to put her finger on what, exactly, it is that he does. She is in thrall to it. The way he smiles at her as he would at any other student, yet with an added tilt of his head that seems to say, Here I am, and there you are.

He slips a DVD into the player. Its The Great Debaters, a movie Maggie had recommended to him the year before. She can barely concentrate on the screen. She feels him watching her the whole time. When their eyes meet, he grins. He is utterly comfortable. Here is a man at mans best, she thinks. Divinely sensible, wholesomely carnal, wearing a drugstore cologne but possessing the strut of a movie star. He watches with his rear on the edge of his desk and his palms on either side of his legs, the way that young male teachers sit. She can feel his eyes moving along the length of her body, admiring her hair, her clavicle schoolgirl parts, but parts of her all the same.

The first of many exhilarating moments comes on a Sunday soon afterwards. In the future she will think of it as the first date.

Maggie is at Melanis house. She doesnt say anything to Melani about her lovecrush. This muteness, which is virtually insufferable for a teenage girl, turns their whole friendship into a lie, because of how large the lovecrush looms and how it overshadows all other things, so that when they speak about parties and classes and clothes and television, Maggie feels she is being a fake. She missed going to church in the morning with her parents so shes supposed to make it up by herself in the evening. Shes getting set to leave Melanis for mass when her phone double-buzzes and its him.

What are you doing?

At Melanis, doing nothing.

He writes that he needs to get the book Freakonomics, and would she like to meet him at Barnes & Noble? Its a really easy place to bump into each other without looking conspicuous.

This is exactly the same as if hed extended an invitation to Bermuda for a long weekend. She could smell the salt water and tanning oil.

She pulls into the parking lot on 42nd Street and reapplies lip gloss with her small, beautiful hands. Theres a parallel universe where shes in church right now. Thats where her best friend and her parents think she is. Being a part of something illicit makes Maggie feel important. She walks into the store. She shakes as she stands in front of a table displaying the bestselling childrens books.

He walks up behind her and she jumps. This is the first time shes been in a nonacademic situation with him and it feels anomalous. Hes an adult man, with a wallet. He looks finer than he usually does in class and is wearing more cologne than usual. He flashes her a fantastic smile, then asks a passing employee where to find Freakonomics. She follows behind them. She knows she has to be a child and a woman all at once and it takes all her energy to satisfy the requirements of each role.

When he gets in line to pay for the book Maggie stands nearby, like a daughter. Then his card is swiped and she feels like her heart has been fed into a meat slicer. She hasnt been fun enough! She hasnt been smart enough! She has been quiet and fawnlike, following him through the aisles in not even her best outfit. He will never want to do this again!

He carries his book in a bag and she follows behind him. In the heated vacuum of the foyer he asks if she wants to go for a drive. The lovecrush hisses in her veins. She would forgo winning the lottery or becoming a celebrity to keep mainlining it. They walk to his car. Its a dark blue crossover. Actually its his wifes car. He doesnt open the door for her. Maybe this is one of the reasons Knodel makes her heart thump because he doesnt open the door, because there is a fraction of asshole to him, because he is withholding. He starts to drive. She notes that hes a good driver. She feels theres nothing about him that isnt excellent.

In the car hes cockier than usual. As a teacher, she decides, hes far nicer. Getting into the car has triggered an acute shift; she goes from feeling half woman and half child to feeling like a toddler. Theyre talking and theres no music on. Maggie experiences a distinct feeling of doom. Its normal, when youre this close to thrall, to worry over losing it. With Knodel, its this thing thats been building since she was a freshman so its that much more important because of its history. Also, because of the quality of his person. Hes top shelf. Being with him, she feels her own stock rise. At the same time, she feels that she isnt good enough.

They drive around for a half hour. When they approach her neighbourhood she tells him so. He says, Oh, where do you live, I want to see. She starts to give directions and he starts to follow them. She enjoys the rare peace of having some semblance of control. Nearly there, he says, No, forget it. I shouldnt know where you live because I may have the urge to drive by and check on you. She slumps in her seat. His distance is captivating and awful. Hes trying to control himself and succeeding, and she feels, acutely, how a loved ones self-control can be cruel to the other person.

The best part of her whole life happens next. He slows to a stop on a quiet street, parks his wifes car at the kerb of a house with no lights on, and just looks at her. He does it for 10 seconds, maybe less. In those seconds, every bad thing she has ever thought about herself is erased, and she feels like a supermodel.

Three Women is published on 9 July (Bloomsbury, 16.99). To order a copy go toguardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over 15.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jun/23/lisa-taddeo-three-women-i-wanted-explore-desire-not-sex