I struggle with Lisa Taddeo. I read her new novel ‘Animal’ last year, and mentally I added it to the list of the growing genre where women treat themselves as worthless and go around causing chaos and ruin, usually to their own detriment. Also on this list is huge-fan-following ‘Luster’ by Raven Leilani.
In an interview with the Guardian, Lisa confesses, “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.” Perhaps that’s why I struggle with Lisa Taddeo’s books – they make me uncomfortable, and I find the point of view and the characters (not to mince words) fucked up. Perhaps that’s why Taddeo’s work is so divisive: you either get it or you don’t; you’re either fucked up over desire or you aren’t.
After reading ‘Animal,’ a friend of mine recommended her previous novel called ‘Three Women,’ which as an embellished non-fiction novel follows the true stories of three different women and their journeys with being loved, and had sex with.
Naturally Lisa Taddeo’s work covers the darker aspects of sex and the psychological drivers it takes to want sex so badly that you’re happy to make sometimes horrific decisions in the search for it. In the end I suppose it all boils down to the want to be loved, in whatever form. However, in Lisa’s books, it doesn’t quite sound like love at all, and instead a need to feel validated – which for these women conceives itself through sex.
All true stories, and all harrowing in their own way: the first character we meet is Maggie, who falls in love with her high school teacher and enters into a romantic relationship with him. It jumps between their love story, as recounted by her, and her presently fighting a court case with him over his sexual relationship with a minor. Although hard to read at times, Taddeo recounts their relationship perfectly through the eyes of a young girl with a huge crush and the excitement that holds, especially when it’s a forbidden love. Later on, after feeling abandoned by him and struggling with her normal life and relationships with other men, she starts to realize how wrong it was, and how it negatively affected her mental health and growth.
Again, this is a true story – the teacher’s name is Aaron Knodel, and he is a revered teacher in West Fargo where he won the teacher of the year award. Disturbingly, he is still teaching students – and Maggie is forever known as a liar.
We meet Lina, a young Catholic girl who fell in love with her brother-in-law’s 30-year-old friend, who took her 16-year-old virginity, and was ostracized for it back at school. Later she gets noticed by her high-school crush, one of the most popular boys in school, and she glows with the requited love and the fact of being noticed after being a wallflower for all those years. A couple months into dating and she was subsequently raped by 3 other schoolmates at a high school party, and her high school crush abandons her, along with her popularity. Years go by, and she gets married to a man who doesn’t touch her at all, and she desperately craves love and affection. Lina reconnects with her now deadbeat, married-with-kids childhood crush, and enters into an illicit affair with him in the search of passion and redemption – but most of all affection.
Her story jumps back and forth between her journey and her retelling to a support group of women, most of whom judge her for sleeping with a married man, as a lot of the other women have come for support from being cheated on by their husbands. Lina is the other woman, and although knows perfectly well that these women dislike her for her actions, she is compelled to retell her story, convinced they will understand and support her after hearing all the facts. Lina’s search for validation causes her to not only pine after sex with her husband, but sex with her crush, and also to alienate her from her support group.
We meet Sloane, a seemingly perfect married 30-something who has sex with other people while her husband watches. A perfectly normal kink, all the while ruining other’s people’s relationships.
At the root of the novel, it details what women will do to feel wanted, even if it means being exploited in the process. These women, in different forms, show a wild desperation to be liked, to be wanted, to feel validated as human beings, and as women who have desires. It shows that throughout strife – and literal abuse – women have been groomed to be submissive: “I apologise for everything – as a woman, I’ve apologised my whole life.”
If anything, these women’s stories are told in almost a total read of suspense, as if we the reader are also highly strung, sexually charged, and waiting for a text back from the married man we are having an affair with. Typical of Taddeo’s books, the women do not come out on top, and some parts of the novel are particularly devastating – so read with caution. As always, I endeavour to see women succeed in all things, so I’m not sure I would read it again.
Regardless of her subjects, Taddeo is an incredible writer, who is able to grip you with both hands, even when trying to squirm away from the story. I do think it is worth the read, and is totally reflective on our own perspectives of desire whether we relate to the book or not, or even accept the characters.
As for me, I’ve currently signed a petition against Aaron Knodel’s right to teach, but reflective of the truth of the novel, and the world’s stance against female victims of rape – I’m not holding out much hope. All I can say is: believe the victim – and don’t send your kids to West Fargo High School.