We begin in West Fargo, North Dakota, as 23-year-old Maggie gives her deposition in a trial involving her high school English teacher, Mr. Knodel, with whom she had a sexual relationship when she was a 17-year-old senior. Struggling with her parents’ alcoholism and the fallout of a family scandal the previous summer (she’d slept with an older man in Hawaii while visiting her sister there), she penned a letter to the friendly, popular teacher, telling him she was depressed and socially isolated. Her friends had turned against her after the Hawaii incident, calling her a slut and a whore; she couldn’t confide in her family. With no one else for Maggie to turn to, Knodel was in a prime position to cast himself as her savior.
What began with after-class chats evolved into a sexual relationship that lasted for several months, racking up hours of phone calls and thousands of text messages. They “fooled around” in Knodel’s classroom, her car, and, once, in his home while his wife was away and his children asleep. When Knodel broke things off with Maggie, the loss was devastating. She kept quiet about it for years. When she finally went to the police and Knodel was put on trial, teachers and students lined up to defend him.
Clearly, the #MeToo mantras have not reached the classrooms or courtrooms of West Fargo. Blaming the victim is not yet uncool. Maggie knows that her community thinks she’s come forward out of spite, for money, or for notoriety. She knows the words they call her. She’s gained significant weight since high school, and as she takes the stand, she wonders whether people will believe Knodel could have chosen her, of all students, to seduce.
Then there is Lina, an Indiana mother of two, in her 30s. Her husband has barely touched her in a decade. Her days go by. She bakes chicken nuggets for her younger son, mops the floor, and takes medication for her chronic pain. All she wants is to be kissed passionately, to be wanted. Lina feels less a person than a feature of the house. Lying in bed next to her husband at night, she fantasizes about punching him in the face.
And then she rekindles an old flame on Facebook: her high school sweetheart, who is now married, with children of his own. Their affair, which takes place in cars and hotel rooms, brings Lina more joy than she’d thought life had to offer; being with him even quells the aches and pains from her fibromyalgia. Oh, and he French-kisses like a god.
Taddeo gives us pornographically detailed scenes of Lina and her lover, and relays pages’ worth of sexy text messages. I felt Lina’s joy with the same captivated intensity that I felt Maggie’s pain and betrayal. When Lina finally works up the nerve to ask her husband for a separation, I caught myself smiling proudly.
Last, there is Sloane — well heeled, gorgeous, and stylish — who owns a restaurant in Newport, Rhode Island, with her chef husband, Richard. They’re swingers, inviting both men and women into their bedroom. Sometimes Richard watches and participates, while at other times Sloane sends him updates by text or video.
Sloane’s sex life, though unusual, is less compelling than her upbringing: she developed bulimia in her teens, which went unnoticed by her family, no matter how loudly she retched into the bathroom sink as her parents sat in the next room. After she wrecked her older brother’s car in an accident that could easily have been fatal, her family expressed more concern about the damage to the vehicle than relief that she survived. Beneath the veneer of her privileged adolescence, with its skating lessons and designer clothes, Sloane is achingly self-conscious about her image, about playing her role correctly. She moves through life with the prickly female awareness that she and her choices are always under observation.
Reading Three Women is a deeply immersive experience. Taddeo rarely interjects to give her two cents on any particular scene; her prologue and epilogue are brief, too, allowing the three stories to stand alone as dispatches from the world of female longing and loss. She does not offer solutions to these women’s problems or hope for their outcomes. Her choice of details — what she holds up as worthy of our consideration — is her way of curating what she thinks is essential about their narratives: when we read the explicit texts between Lina and her lover, with their misspellings and their teenage-like wonder, it’s because Taddeo is saying, This is an important document. This is to be taken seriously.
I pictured these women talking with Taddeo, revealing to her, with increasing trust, the far corners of their inner lives. By contrast, I was also starkly aware of each woman’s limited support system. It’s comforting that Maggie sees therapists throughout her ordeal, though I can’t imagine this mitigates the effects of a school full of girls calling her a whore. Even Sloane, the Rhode Island restaurateur, has no trio of sexually open-minded friends to whom she can vent over brunch à la Sex and the City. (Reading Fifty Shades of Grey, though, does make her feel less alone in the peculiarity of her desire, a little less like a freak.) For her part, Lina discloses her affair to the women’s discussion group that meets at her doctor’s office, but the reactions are mixed. It’s clear that the women are aiming, through their comments, to take a little joy away from Lina, to knock her down from her pedestal of pleasure. They think she’s being greedy. A fellow mom at the playground tells her that, if her husband fixes things around the house, why should she be upset that he refuses to kiss her?
When I finished reading Maggie’s sections of the book, I Googled her case. There she was, in pictures alongside her mother in a courtroom. And there was Knodel and his wife. It was like looking at the cast of a film adaptation of a novel one is fond of: because no one is the way you pictured, it doesn’t seem quite right. Taddeo has, indeed, afforded her subjects the intimate complexity and lyrical treatment of characters in novels. I pictured them vividly. Though each individual’s story line suffers a bit from being just one-third of the whole — and Maggie’s feels like the centerpiece, with Lina’s and Sloane’s narrative arcs less fully realized — their portraits together are smartly told and deeply moving.
How were these three women chosen to represent American womanhood? The author’s note offers Taddeo’s criteria: their stories were selected for their “relatability,” “intensity,” and the way that past events still weighed on these women’s lives. Taddeo spoke with many potential subjects, several of whom backed out during the course of her research, concerned for their privacy.
Of the three she ended up with, two are middle or lower middle class; one is wealthy. All are white. Two are straight, the third bisexual. Two live in small Midwestern cities, the third in small-town New England. Two are married, both of them are mothers. Two are loosely Catholic, the third non-religious. The oldest is in her early 40s. All three are described as conventionally attractive.
Notably, all three share a common bond of having experienced childhood sexual exploitation in one form or another — Maggie, preyed upon by the older man in Hawaii and then by her teacher; Lina, drugged and raped by three boys at a high school party; Sloane, sexually propositioned by a family member when she was a child. At first I didn’t know what to make of these parallels. I felt uncomfortable with the idea that a cross-section of female desire would show abuse at its core. Perhaps I was expecting a different book.
Yet according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three women in the United States experiences some form of “sexual violence involving physical contact” during her lifetime. That the three women Taddeo foregrounds should have all shared an adolescence marred by abuse is thus not so outlandish.
The three protagonists all describe their abuse as having left them feeling “tainted” and “filthy,” as having “spoiled” their notion of love. Years after her relationship with Mr. Knodel, Maggie finds herself changing her underwear constantly, in an effort to feel clean. Abusive men have not just altered the trajectory of these women’s lives; they have uprooted them and thrown them about, with the same consideration a storm affords trees. What might Maggie have become if her teacher had not taken advantage of her? The tragedy is that no nonfiction account can be written of that scenario.
If Three Women is a report on the state of women’s sexual desire in America, I am tempted to say that the state is not good. And if that’s true, where do we go from here? I don’t have the answer to that question. All I have are stories like these, and my own.
Helena Duncan lives in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in the Chicago Review of Books, the South Side Weekly, and Barrelhouse.