Three Women: Female Desire or Male Gaze?

That it wasn’t her desire, but mostly theirs, that she was serving.”

There has been no ignoring this work of non-fiction which artfully documents the real lives of three very different women and their experience of love in the modern world. Initially the glowing reviews and beautiful Bookstagram pictures hummed from every corner of the internet. Then slowly those reviews became more mixed. Rarely was Taddeo’s writing style criticised (it would be impossible in my opinion to do this) but the subject matter or the subjects of this literary phenomenon were questioned.  

This had been a difficult review to write. In the days after I finished Three Women I tried to begin this review and failed. The words just wouldn’t come and I couldn’t seem to formulate my thoughts into anything which resembled a coherent opinion. I’d largely enjoyed reading this book – it was, as Dolly Alderton said, “totally addictive” – but something wasn’t sitting right. I hadn’t been blown away but neither had I been disappointed. 

Here’s what I think it was. Like others I struggled with the three women the book follows. Well, not all three – just the one, Lina. Lina who only

ever wanted … to be fully in love and forever partnered.”

Sloane and Maggie’s stories were much more in line with what I was expecting from this book, but neither made for easy reading.   

It is Sloane who in some ways most challenges our ideas of the traditional female role; in some ways through her open desire, but in others is traditional. Engaging in threesomes to please her husband whilst she dreams of traditional domesticity. 

Maggie wants to be seen and understood, and finds herself in a relationship with her sympathetic teacher. Here we see how the “weakness” of female vulnerability and deeper feeling is abused. We join Maggie’s story as she lives through a court case against her former lover. 

Perhaps my feelings then came from my own expectations for this novel, which is somewhat ironic given that it is the romantic expectations of women which lead them to become so disappointed, desperate and unfulfilled in this book.

There has been some criticism that this book only explores the experiences of white, primarily hetrosexual, cis women. I do think this is a limitation, but this does not take away how exciting it is to have a work of non-fiction which focuses solely on women, or does it? These women all seem to experience desire through the lens of male desire – the experiences of each of these women are shaped by the whims of men.  

From the opening, where the author shares the story of how her mother was followed on her morning walk to work by a man who masturbated just behind her, male desire shapes the female experience of sexuality. I felt that this far outweighed the exploration of female desire, unattainable love, unmet needs and obsession. No matter how far women have come, it seems that it will always be curtailed by their male subjects of desire. A somewhat bleak message.  

Much had been made of the sexuality of this book and Taddeo’s handling of intimate moments is truly faultless, though not so shocking as some reviewers had hinted. No cringy Mills and Boon or Fifty Shades hyperbole but just real sex, in all its awkward, messy intensity. The issue I had was with the notion that these were sexually liberated women – to me they seemed as constrained by their need for control and their relationship with their bodies, or mostly the desires of men. Perhaps though this was something the reader is supposed to take from reading. 

There is also something here about the way we as women judge each other. Sloane puts this well in her section 

Women shouldn’t judge one another’s lives, if we haven’t been through one another’s fire.” 

and this is something that I took from reading this book. It’s all too easy to judge women, to label them, names I won’t share here but which are thrown around in Three Women. 

Three Women is a challenging and important read. It is refreshing to have the opportunity to read an honest account of the female experience of sexuality and desire, even if it doesn’t leave you feeling inspired by the possibilities open to women. The question remains though how do women overcome the effect of the male gaze, something which this book does not do. 

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