This reading group guide for Three Women includes an introduction, discussion questions, and a Q&A with author Lisa Taddeo. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.Introduction
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For nearly a decade, Lisa Taddeo, an award-winning journalist and longtime contributor to New York
magazine and Esquire
, embedded herself with three ordinary women to write this deeply immersive account of their erotic lives and longings. The result—Three Women
—is a shocking, powerful, and timely interrogation of female desire in contemporary America.
Lina, a homemaker in suburban Indiana, is a decade into a passionless marriage when she embarks on an affair that quickly becomes all-consuming and transforms her life. Sloane, a glamorous entrepreneur in the northeast, is married to a man who likes to watch her have sex with other people. Maggie, a high school student in North Dakota, begins an alleged affair with her married English teacher that will have extraordinary consequences for them both—as well as the community in which they live.Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. In the author’s note, Taddeo explains the mechanics of her reporting and writing process for Three Women
. How did knowing this information affect the way you read the book? Did it help to know how the book was researched before you started reading?
2. Why do you think we have such a difficult—or uncomfortable—time talking about women’s desire and women’s bodies, even in today’s otherwise open cultural discussions?
3. In the prologue, the author writes, “One inheritance of living under the male gaze for centuries is that heterosexual women often look at other women the way a man would” (page 2). Discuss this statement. In your experience, have you found this to be true or false? Assuming you believe this statement to be true or at least partially true, how does the notion of the inherited male gaze affect Lina, Sloane, and Maggie’s desire and the actions they take to seize their desire?
4. The author spent a considerable amount of time speaking with men about desire before becoming so intrigued by the “complexity and beauty and violence” of female desire that she turned her focus exclusively to women. How would the book be different if men’s voices were included? Did you find yourself wondering what Lina or Sloane’s husbands were thinking, or what Maggie’s teacher taught? Discuss with your group whether men and women will read and respond to Three Women
differently and, if so, how?
5. After years of research, interviews, and embedding, the author made the decision to narrate much of Three Women
in the third person and uses only the first person in the prologue and epilogue. At times during Maggie’s sections, she even switches to the second person (“you”), directly addressing the readers as if they are involved. How did the author’s decisions about point of view enhance or alter your understanding of these women and their stories? How would the book have been different if the author had chosen to insert herself into the women’s stories?
6. One thing that Lina, Sloane, and Maggie have in common is the way they modify their behavior to fit the needs and desires of the partners they desire. How did it make you feel that these women had to change parts of themselves to try to gain love and acceptance from the ones they are with or the ones they desire? What does this say about power in relationships and the dynamics between men and women that we inherit and invent for ourselves? Have you ever experienced this in a relationship?
7. While Lina and Sloane are adults when they realize and act on their desires, Maggie is a high school student involved in an alleged relationship with a married teacher. Did you view Maggie’s story differently from those of her counterparts? What struck you most about her experience?
8. Maggie’s experiences not only upend her own life but also that of her entire community. Were you surprised by the outcome of the trial and the varying ways in which Maggie and her teacher each have to deal with the fallout from it? How did you feel about how strongly the community supported Maggie’s teacher?
9. At one point in her narrative, Lina explains that she fears being alone more than she fears death, which seems to inform a lot of her decisions. Do you agree with her? Why do you think that loneliness and not experiencing love frighten us so much?
10. Something that seems to follow Sloane are the expectations that others put upon her when it comes to her job, life partner, appearance, status, and so on, which create a line she has to straddle. How does accommodating other people interfere with Sloane’s own needs and desires? Is there an overlap between her accommodation and her desires?
11. To some extent, the author’s goal in Three Women
is to restore agency and power to women as they tell their stories. Do you think she succeeds? Why is it important that women feel empowered to tell their truths?
12. In your opinion, what shapes our views of sex and relationships most? Is it environment, past experience, the media, our families, our friends, or something else? How does each of the three women’s lives influence her mind-set? How have experiences from your past informed your adult life?
13. In the beginning and at the end of the book, the author recounts a story about her Italian mother and the man who used to follow her inappropriately. How does that anecdote set the tone for the book and carry throughout? What is the legacy of mothers and daughters when it comes to relationships, sex, and desire, both in this book and in your own experiences?
14. In the prologue of Three Women
, the author explains, “It’s relatability that moves us to empathize” (page 7). After reading the book, do you agree? How did you relate, or not, to Lina, Sloane, and Maggie’s stories? Discuss as a group whether you empathize more or less with people you can relate to. Was your reading of the book affected by an ability to connect with Lina, Sloane, or Maggie?A Conversation with Lisa TaddeoThough you summarize in your author’s note and prologue why you wanted to write Three Women and how you went about it, what was the actual process of reporting this book like? How did it challenge you? Was it difficult to be so close to these people and so embedded in their lives?
Reporting the book was intensely and maddeningly different day-to-day, hour-to-hour. There was no formula, no set of questions, no group of people. It was somewhat haunting in that I thought of it every second. There wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t feel like I was failing.
I would make lists of tenuous things to do:
In the morning, post signs on coffee shop and supermarket bulletin boards. On the windows of car2go. On slot machines in casinos. On the fence outside the Prada Marfa art installation.
In the afternoon, write whatever I’d observed the day before, transcribe tape, or write pages out of notes.
In the early evening, go to dive bars, nice restaurants, libraries, and mechanics; talk to people; and ask around. Trying to isolate a town or a human being that would make me feel like I’d found it
. Or hang out with whomever I’d found the day or week before.
In the late evening, eat dinner while posting things on the internet. Read and write. Panic.
In sum, the actual process was like trying to attack a kernel in the fog with hundreds of different swords. But when I found Lina it felt right
. The idea of “Finding Lina” a second or third time was the same daunting process all over. By then, though, I’d gotten a little better at cataloging the potential risks for a subject while also not frightening them away. Giving them the full scope of what I wanted to do while also taking it easy. I’d gotten better at knowing which people wouldn’t be likely to get spooked and drop. It was also an important factor that the motivation for someone being open to letting me into their lives in such an intimate manner wouldn’t be for any purpose other than sharing and hoping their stories would help others.
It was hard for me to look for people and to speak to subjects for months, when they would end up dropping out. It was hard for me to place myself in an invasive position in other people’s lives. It was hard to have so many instances of pure aimlessness and fear. I have a lot of anxiety and I had a lot of panic attacks throughout the course of this research (which continue to this day). Being embedded in people’s lives was extraordinarily uncomfortable. Especially when it felt like I was an imposition. I spent a long time with people because I wanted to do everything slowly and carefully. I knew that if I pushed too much, too soon, it would be off-putting. More than wanting to “get the story,” I wanted all the subjects of this book to feel heard and not used.
The instances I loved most came when I was watching people from a distance, quietly writing, taking notes, observing the environment while not being a part of the action. For example, after Lina was intimate with Aidan in their sacred spot, I would travel there right after, to take in the smells and sounds and sights of the river at dusk. So I could best describe the milieu, so I could best layer on to what Lina had told me.Were there any books, writers, or approaches that you used as inspiration or guidance before and during your interviewing and writing process?
I admired the breadth of George Packer’s The Unwinding
, the immersion of Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife
, the distance of Joan Didion, the nearness of Elena Ferrante, the patience and nonjudgmental nature of Tracy Kidder, the pierce of Janet Malcolm, the eye for absurdity of Renata Adler, the throttle of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff
, the incisive language of Joy Williams, and the empathy and humility and love of Grace Paley.Each woman’s story has a particular kind of intensity attached to it, but Maggie’s seems to differ, in that her story is public and she was a minor when the events in her story transpired. How did you approach writing her story as opposed to Lina or Sloane’s?
The approaches to each story were very different. They are all different people. It’s about perpetual temperature-taking, waiting, listening, waiting. The major difference with Maggie’s story was that it was already recorded. It was easier, in that way, to have a skeleton to start with. It was easier to take the skeleton and graft the flesh of her truth onto it.Even in the #MeToo era, why do you think we still have such a hard—or uncomfortable—time talking about women’s desire and women’s bodies? Why do some women—the women in Lina’s discussion group, for example—become angry or jealous when another woman freely expresses her desire?
It’s been centuries of living under the male gaze, of believing men’s desire to be pulsing animal fact, and women’s desire to be a log in the wood. That’s begun to change, but unfortunately it will take a long time to really see that change. I believe the best starting point is for women to stop judging other women, to not compete with one another, to not be cruel. To stand together as sisters and not as beasts in the wild.
Still, it never ceases to amaze me the way we try to cauterize the forward-thinking, passion-filled brains of women, to beat them down until (maybe) we finally see their worth. And sometimes it’s too late. We are afraid of women rising out of their boxes. We are afraid of anyone beneath
. It confuses our own place in the world. We are afraid
is the main reason for anything we do to stifle another human being.There are moments in the book where you choose to switch your narrative point of view into the second person (“you”) or break the fourth wall entirely (mostly in Maggie’s sections, to provide context to her court case). What was your thought process behind that choice?
I imagined the person least likely to believe Maggie’s version of events. I tried to envisage all the things that person would think or say to deny her story—which wasn’t difficult considering what I’d seen in the papers and heard from other people in the town—then I asked her the questions about each particular instance, scores of times. I wanted to have as many of her past and retrospective thoughts as possible. Once I felt that I did, I chose to use the second person as a means by which to insert that nonbeliever immediately into Maggie’s position, so that person would have to work to climb out of it. I wanted it to be hard to not listen and comprehend. To not hear
her.A theme that emerges throughout the book are the legacies passed down from mothers to daughters, sexual and otherwise. Was that an intentional choice you made to highlight, or do you think it’s a natural element of women’s lives?
As the prologue mentions, it’s most often other women who impress upon one another the most. Who can make us feel bad or good about ourselves. Through talking to these hundreds of people, I found that mothers are the wildest, most affecting forces in many of our lives. Our national lexicon has always maintained the notion of “daddy issues,” which I think is, in itself, a very masculine take on the way a woman walks through the world. With most of the women I spoke with, it was the influence of the mother that weighed the most heavily on their life decisions.When you look at this trio of women, you realize that they overlap with one another in some ways—each seems to have something the other desires for herself. Did you look for commonalities among the women as you wrote about them, or do you think that that’s just part of the female experience?
I didn’t really look for commonalities. Those themes—pain, passion, heartbreak, fear, feeling ugly, feeling guilty, feeling lost, taking life-altering risks for a moment of fire—are part of the human experience. The largest commonality among these three women is that they were, largely, the ones being judged by others. They were
“other.” When really, everyone is “other” to everyone else.Do you think men and women will read and respond to Three Women differently? Is it possible for one gender to fully understand the experience of another, and the role that they play in that experience?
I don’t think it’s so much men versus women in terms of response, but the alpha person in a relationship versus the one who is not. One man did say to me that, before reading the book, he’d had no idea how much the indifference of men could be wounding. I was happy to hear that takeaway. That was one I (and Lina, I’m pretty sure) wanted the world to have.
I think it’s possible for any human to begin to understand the experience of another, if they listen and empathize. Of course, it’s impossible to fully understand anyone, including ourselves. But listening is the first step. Not judging is the second.Each woman in the book has had an experience in her early life that has fundamentally shaped her view on sex, relationships, and love. To what extent is Three Women a study in trauma? Was that something you identified and realized early on, or did it emerge as you wrote? Do you think our formative experiences necessarily determine who we will become, or can we change the course of our lives on our own?
I don’t think formative experiences determine who we will become, but I think it’s impossible to divorce ourselves from things that happened when we were five, nine, eleven, fifteen.Three Women
is a study of trauma to the extent that life is a study of trauma. Trauma is a part of passion, even if the passion endures. At length someone dies, or someone will
die. It’s all a part of the human experience. In Donald Antrim’s The Verificationist
, the narrator says, “The simple question ‘What color do you want to paint that upstairs room?’ might, if we follow things to their logical conclusions, be stated: ‘How do I live, knowing that I will one day die and leave you?’”
The three women in this book—indeed all people in the world—are either the heroes or the victims of their own narratives, depending on the day—oftentimes depending on the hour. Looking at just the pain is not the point. We suffer pain when we take risks. We suffer even when we don’t. But these women did take big risks. They also have remarkable depth of feeling. Where there is depth, there is always a storehouse of pain.
Someone asked me why I didn’t believe there were happy marriages, and why I didn’t write about one. For starters, happy marriages without risk are many wonderful things, but they are not immediately compelling stories. Second, Sloane’s marriage is a happy one. A very happy one. But it does have qualities that make it aberrant from the traditional (accepted) type of marriage. Those qualities are what made it intriguing enough (to me) to be examined at length.What was the most surprising or interesting thing you learned about female desire over the course of reporting and writing the book? What did the women teach you about your own perception of desire?
Reporting and writing this book caused me to remember things from my past, not just terrible things, but marking
things. Talking to these people made me remember how little I’d asked of my own mother. Regarding who she was before she was my mother. Who she was, even after, in her own brain. Who she was after my father died. I didn’t ask, because I didn’t even think to.What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
One lofty hope for this book is that it will inspire at least a few people to stop judging their neighbors and inspire some others to tell their own stories. And in an even broader sense, to not let people go through their lives unseen and unheard. Even if you have stopped loving someone in the world, it’s cruel to not say, “I see you. I know you exist.”