Month: September 2019

Book Review: Three Women

By Jackie Desforges

Three WomenSince the publication and instant success of her debut nonfiction book, Three Women, Lisa Taddeo has stated that she set out to tell a story about human desire. She spent eight years researching and writing the book, and as the years progressed, the story narrowed: she went from writing about human desire to writing about female desire. She went from writing about hundreds of women to writing about dozens, and then less than a handful, and then, finally, three. She went from denying any requests for anonymity to shielding the identities of most people featured in the final book. The resulting story feels, at first glance, too specific to be universal: three women, living in small American towns and entangled in various phases of heterosexual relationships.

But as one reads, it becomes clear that the “who” is less important here than the “what.” The book is called Three Women, but really, these women are just the proxies for the true subject of this investigative piece: female desire. Though I can’t personally relate to many of the things these women experienced, I feel that Taddeo is able to present something universal—or, more often, something that strikes a nerve—in each story.

She starts with Maggie. This first chapter of the book is the only time that Taddeo uses the second person narration, and the effect is immediate: we are there in the room with Maggie, seventeen years old, putting on our make-up as we prepare to go on a date. “You get ready that morning like someone preparing for war. Your war paint is make-up. A neutral, smoky eye” (11). We are invited into the story. We read the details of her relationship with her married teacher, we get a glimpse of the court proceedings, and while these are the meat of Maggie’s story, they aren’t the things I was thinking about long after I put the book down. Instead, I was fascinated by the texting. There were allegedly thousands of text messages exchanged during the course of the relationship. Maggie describes the anxiety of waiting for a message, the thrill of seeing his name appear on her phone, the way she learned to interpret his tones and moods and the jokes they made, even from something as small as a strategically placed punctuation mark. I know I’m not alone in my fascination and empathy; in December 2017, the New Yorker story Cat Person went viral, largely because of the shockingly apt and blunt descriptions of the modern texting and dating culture depicted in the story. There is a line in one of Maggie’s chapters that describes it well, this feeling of waiting for that person you like to text you back, to show you that something made them think about you enough that they had to pick up their phone and tell you: “Sometimes there’s nothing better on earth than someone asking you a question” (21).

After Maggie, we meet Lina. Most of the time we spend with her in the book is during her early thirties, married with children, and about to start an affair with her high school sweetheart, Aidan. Lina’s scenes in the book are the most sexually explicit. Most of her chapters include a play-by-play of the sex that Lina and Aiden have in a hotel room, in his car, by the river, back in the hotel room. Taddeo includes a passage from Lina’s Facebook messages, completely unedited, in which Lina describes exactly what she wants Aidan to do to her:

Staring into my eyes you enter me and repeat that wonderful rhythm you did the first night: three shallow and then thrust deep, three shallow and then thrust deep, I gasp each time you come deeper into me, I whisper in your ear not to stop, you wrap your arms around me and draw me closer to you, while going faster and faster. I take my leg and arms and flip you over all while you stay deep inside me during this move. Now I am on top of you, you still hold me close to your body, kissing me passionately w/ that glorious mouth of yours 😉 (147)

Of the three women, I found Lina to be the most naked. Beyond the physicality of her sex scenes, there is a constant nakedness in the way she expresses her emotions. This is the only time in the book that we get to read something that was written by one of the women: her voice laid out on the page for us, unedited, none of her desires or typos or personality hidden. Everything that Lina feels is laid bare; nothing is too ugly or shameful to admit.  Reading her chapters, I found myself alternating between cringing that someone could be so openly desperate about a person who clearly doesn’t love her back, and then relief at the realization that I’m not the only person this has ever happened to.

And then there is Sloane. Taddeo sets her up to be the type of woman that other women are supposed to envy, or even hate: she is beautiful, thin, successful, wealthy, and most importantly, she is cool. She’s cool with the fact that her husband picks men for her to have sex with while he watches. She’s cool about her husband inviting other women into the bedroom with them. Nothing seems to ruffle Sloane. Unlike Lina, Sloane’s desire is measured, controlled, and put to strategic use. Sloane seems to understand something that Lina does not: sometimes the way to get who you want is to lean away from them, to look in the opposite direction, to create some space for them to lean in towards you.

If Maggie’s story is about the build-up to desire, the flirting and texting and side glances, and Lina’s story is about the physicality of desire, the way that a touch from the right person can almost turn into an addiction, then Sloane’s story is about the mental or intellectual aspect of desire: the calculations, aftereffects, rules and bargaining that run through our heads when we let someone else into our bodies. We live most of Sloane’s story in her head:

There were two truths. The first was that she didn’t think she’d had to consider Jenny, that Wes would be making the right decisions for his partner. The second truth, perhaps truer than the first, was that two men don’t think about things as much as a woman does. Perhaps Sloane was being sexist, in a way, but she knew men could be selfish. As long as certain needs of theirs were being met, they didn’t consider the cost. (221)

Though each story is distinct, there are common threads. We see the effect that the media has on all three women: books for Maggie and Sloane, romantic comedies for Lina. The women consume this media almost obsessively, and it colors their ideas about what relationships and desire should look like. Texting and social media play a massive role as well—texting for Maggie, Facebook for Lina. The saturation of media in our everyday lives has altered what we desire from relationships, from vacations, from dinners, from our friendships—this could be an entirely different essay in itself, but Taddeo touches on it beautifully in each woman’s story.

We see the aftermath of sexual trauma in each story, though it isn’t a focus, not even in the most brutal case: Lina was gang-raped when she was in high school, but Taddeo spends only a few pages on it and then it’s never really mentioned again, which is almost more shocking than the revelation of the assault itself. Taddeo also carries the theme of motherhood throughout the book—even in the prologue and afterword—which raises several inevitable questions: do some of our desires stem from the things we saw our mothers go through, or tolerate, or yearn for? Is there any part of our desire that stems from something our mothers refused to give to us? Two of the women in these stories are mothers; what effects will their desires have on their children? How much of what we are absorbing as readers are these children absorbing in real life?

This book is about female desire in that it is about the things that three specific women want from three specific men; but it is also a book about the things that women desire from each other: approval, envy, validation. We can read each of these three stories as a set of litmus tests: our reaction to Maggie’s affair shows us how we feel about consent and placing blame. Our reaction to Lina is possibly the realest and harshest: it forces us to consider what we look like, and more importantly how we act, when our physical needs are not met and our romantic ideals are proven unattainable. Our reaction to Sloane shows us how we feel about monogamy, and more specifically, what we think a happy marriage should look like in the long run. It is clear Taddeo knows all of this, and that she knew it would be effective to present to us these three cases that are specific in their details but universal in their emotional resonance. She writes:

It’s the nuances of desire that hold the truth of who we are at our rawest moments. I set out to register the heat and sting of female want so that men and other women might more easily comprehend before they condemn. Because it’s the quotidian moments of our lives that will go on forever, that will tell us who we were, who our neighbors and our mothers were, when we were too diligent in thinking they were nothing like us.

 


Jackie DesForges is based in Los Angeles and currently working on her first novel. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter at @jackie__writes.

Book Review: Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino

By Rachel Zarrow

Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion is the debut essay collection from The New Yorker staff writer, Jia Tolentino. In each essay she examines the ever-growing quagmire of self-delusion that faces us, humans living in the age of the internet.

The book opens with the essay “The I in the Internet,” and the author’s assertion that, “In the beginning the internet seemed good” (3). Tolentino quotes her ten-year-old self who, on an Angelfire subpage wrote, “I was in love with the internet the first time I used it at my dad’s office and thought it was the ULTIMATE COOL” (3).  Tolentino understands the age of the internet more deeply than most. Her relationship with the internet has metamorphosed over two decades.

Of the social internet, Web 2.0, she writes:

As a medium, the Internet is defined by a built-in performance incentive. In real life, you can walk around living life and be visible to other people. But you can’t just walk around and be visible on the internet—for anyone to see you, you have to act. You have to communicate in order to maintain an internet presence. And, because the internet’s central platforms are built around personal profiles, it can seem…like the main purpose of this communication is to make you look good. Online reward mechanisms beg to substitute for offline ones, and then overtake them. (8)

In other words, engaging in the social internet as it’s designed means stepping into a trap, one that encourages us to waste time, and one that tracks our every move, selling us out to the highest bidder. The most dangerous trap of all is the self-delusion underlying it. Tolentino explains:

The everyday madness perpetuated by the internet is the madness of this architecture, which positions personal identity as the centre of the universe. It’s as if we’ve been placed on a lookout that oversees the entire world and given a pair of binoculars that makes everything look like our own reflection. (14)

This essay (as well as the entire collection) is dark, but so is the reality  of the internet. Tolentino concludes:

The internet is still so young that it’s easy to retain some subconscious hope that it all might still add up to something. We remember… [when it] felt like butterflies and puddles and blossoms, and we sit patiently in our festering inferno, waiting for the internet to turn around and surprise us and get good again. But it won’t. (32)

Tolentino has revealed the trick mirror for what it is. Not only does this love story lack a happily-ever-after, but it turns out that it’s not even a love story after all.

In “Always Be Optimizing,” Tolentino examines the evolution of the marketing around women’s beauty, exercise, and diet plans, which sell a female ideal. She writes:

Today’s ideal woman is a type that coexists easily with feminism in its current market-friendly and mainstream form. This sort of feminism has organized itself around being as visible and appealing to as many people as possible; it has greatly over-valorized women’s individual success. Feminism has not eradicated the tyranny of the ideal woman but, rather, has entrenched it and made it trickier. These days, it is perhaps even more psychologically seamless than ever for an ordinary woman to spend her life walking toward the idealized mirage of her own self-image. (65)

Once proffered to women by mid-century magazines in service of our husbands, this ideal has been rebranded as a gift “for ourselves” (81, author’s emphasis), part of a “lifestyle myth” (81). Tolentino explores the small but concrete ways that this myth has become deeply engrained into the daily choices of many female earners. Tolentino examines barre classes, spandex (in the forms of shapewear and athleisure), and chopped salads, and states that, “Women are genuinely trapped at the intersection of capitalism and patriarchy—two systems that, at their extremes, ensure that individual success comes at the expense of collective morality.” (91).

Tolentino states: “Shapewear, essentially twenty-first century corseting, controls the body under clothing; athleisure broadcasts your commitment to controlling your body through working out. And to even get into a pair of Lululemons you have to have a disciplined-looking body” (83-4). And the cycle of self-delusion continues: “[T]he real trick of athlesiure,” Tolentino writes, “is the way that it can physically suggest that you were made to do this” (84).

Tolentino writes with an enviable authority, one that comes with having lived and breathed the very subjects about which she writes (she’s been an internet user for most of her life) and an authority built upon a long-held awareness of her writerly self. The latter appears in the form of snippets from various journals she’s filled and blogs posts she’s written since she was an adolescent. The mere fact that she still has these journals reflects her foresight. In the essay “Pure Heroines,” Tolentino, who holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan, examines the stark contrast between the portrayals of female protagonists in children’s literature and those found in adult literature. She analyzes the protagonists she’s encountered in a lifetime of reading (This is a diverse list that includes Claudia from Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Jo from Alcott’s Little Women, Esther from Plath’s The Bell Jar, Anna from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and Katniss from Collins’s The Hunger Games, among many others). Tolentino notices that the young protagonists “are all so brave, where adult heroines are all so bitter” (97) and posits:

If the childhood heroine accepts the future from a comfortable distance, and if the adolescent is blindly thrust toward it by forces beyond her control, the adult heroine lives within this long-anticipated future and finds it dismal, bitter, and disappointing. Her situation is generally one of premature and artificial finality, in which getting married and having children has prevented her from living the life she wants. (112)

Another dead-end, and certainly not a happy ending.

“The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams” is the essay I would present to a family of extraterrestrials if they invaded and requested one seminal document explaining life in today’s capitalist American  . Tolentino actually examines eight scams—perhaps this is a scam of arithmetic in and of itself? And these are: Fyre Fest, the financial crisis of 2008, the student debt crisis, the advent of social media (namely Facebook), the concept of the #girlboss, Theranos, the venture capital funding of tech giants (particularly Amazon), and the 2016 presidential election. It’s a concise examination that could inform extraterrestrials and remind us mere terrestrial beings of the myriad madnesses we take for granted.

Throughout the book, the symbolic trick mirror and the theme of refraction appear beautifully and thoughtfully in Tolentino’s clear—and often skeptical—voice. She presents the traps of the world as she sees them and rarely attempts to provide solutions because there aren’t any. As we, the readers, participants in this crazy world, feed ourselves a steady diet of self-delusion, we grow and grow like the snake from the Snake game until we are trapped with just  two options: crash into ourselves or crash into our surroundings. Either way, we lose.


Rachel Zarrow writes fiction and nonfiction. Her work has appeared in various outlets including The Atlantic, BUST, and the San Francisco Chronicle.She is working on her first novel and screenplay. She lives in San Francisco. Find her on Instagram and Twitter @rachroobear and at www.rachelzarrow.com

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén