Judging by the books I have been covering, women have been on my mind these days. And where there are women, there’s love and beauty, and, in Lisa Taddeo’s debut, Three Women, unbridled desire. Her reporting on the stories of Maggie, a high school student involved with her teacher; Lina, a woman in a traditional marriage so devoid of passion that her husband refuses to kiss her mouth; and Sloane, a sophisticate married to a man who likes to watch her have sex with other men and women, is a journalistic feat that took her almost a decade to write as she moved addresses and crisscrossed the country six times.
Three Women, which will be released in July, is the first book from Simon & Schuster’s new Avid Reader Press imprint; v-p and publisher Jofie Ferrari-Adler calls the book a “triple threat: a triumph of reporting, empathy, and literary writing.”
In April 2010, Ferrari-Adler read an article by Taddeo in New York magazine titled “Rachel Uchitel Is Not a Madam,” about the world of elite nightclubs that he says “knocked me out.” Ferrari-Adler got Taddeo’s contact info from New York editor Adam Moss and invited her to lunch.
Not long after, Jennifer Joel at ICM was having an informal conversation with Ferrari-Adler, and he told her to check out Taddeo’s New York piece. “I knew immediately she was special,” Joel says. “She had a real perspective on these issues and she had a real voice. I reached out to her in May 2010. We were a good fit and started talking through different ideas but honing in on this big nonfiction project.”
Serendipitously, Ferrari-Adler was cleaning out his Grove office that summer, preparing to head to S&S, when he came across a copy of Thy Neighbor’s Wife, Gay Talese’s 1981 nonfiction account of sexuality in America from the postwar period through the 1970s. He sent it along to Joel with a note that read, “This hasn’t been done in a long time.... Is there anything here for the project we’ve been talking about with Lisa? It’s a totally different world out there now.”
Serious conversations started at S&S in July 2010. “Jofie was an active participant from the start,” Joel says. It was an exclusive submission based on a short proposal, and we signed the contract in fall 2010.”
Taddeo met with Ferrari-Adler and set off on a true odyssey to find the story. “It was basically Lisa going out there and using her nose,” he says of how the book came together.
Taddeo delivered the first draft of Three Women (the title is Ferrari-Adler’s, and Taddeo thinks it’s perfect) in the summer of 2017. Did she think it would take so long?
“No,” Taddeo says emphatically. “I was scared at various points, and every time I lost a person who I thought would work out after investing weeks or months, I was disconcerted. But I never thought of not finishing it.”
Her original plan for this look at desire in America was to find one family to follow—and she did. But ultimately, Taddeo says, it wasn’t that interesting. “I let the family go, but I still never expected I’d cross the country six times!”
Taddeo spent several months looking for people to interview. She says she posted on Craigslist and Facebook; she called editors, lawyers, therapists, police officers. “I did a lot online, but also used traditional methods. I put up posters in Starbucks, in a dive bar in Texas.”
In New Orleans, at a Harrah’s casino, Taddeo put posters on slot machines and in the bathroom stalls. She says she was looking for diversity. “I wanted a mixture of people who would talk to me about sexual desire honestly and rawly. I didn’t even start out thinking the book would include women exclusively, but I’d come home and complain to my husband about the men I’d interviewed. They were all the same; it was all about ego and I wasn’t interested in ego. I was interested in desire that takes over your life—that feeling that you can’t control.”
Taddeo’s first move was to Indiana, where she had been communicating with a doctor who ran a program that treated women for weight loss. “It was a totally random move,” she says. “My apartment had flooded during Sandy; it was a good time to get out of New York.”
In Indiana, Taddeo started a discussion group with these women. “We’d sit around and drink wine and talk,” she says. “One woman, Lina, had a story that stood out. She was quiet, Catholic, and I became obsessed with her. Her husband wouldn’t kiss her on the mouth, and she was about to start an affair with another man. Her desire was so immediate, and she was so able to communicate it to me that, at one point, I thought the book could be just Lina.”
In 2012, Taddeo sent in Lina’s story. She remembers Ferrari-Adler saying, “Terrific—just do this two more times!”
Undaunted, Taddeo moved to Los Angeles—to Topanga Canyon, which happens to be near Sandstone, the retreat where Talese got naked for Thy Neighbor’s Wife. “I wanted the next woman to be cosmopolitan; I wanted the contrast to Lina,” Taddeo says. She found a subject, but she fell out and it was back to posting signs, until a mutual friend told her about Sloane.
“She was beautiful, vibrant, desirable—the opposite of Lina, who was waiting for desire,” Taddeo says. She moved back to the Northeast to meet with Sloane and was fascinated by her. “She owned her sexuality. Her husband liked to watch her have sex; there were threesomes. There were rumors about her all over town, but I was interested in her as a person. I wanted to connect with these woman I was writing about, to know them.”
Taddeo had Lina and Sloane and needed one more. Again, she crossed the country, posting signs, ears pricked, and ended up sitting in the Cowboy Café in Medora, N.Dak., hearing about women who were waitresses by day and prostitutes by night for the imported oil workers. She found an intriguing woman, bisexual, from the Caribbean, but the woman backed out, and, Taddeo says, “by now, it’s six years and I’m exhausted.”
Then Taddeo picked up a newspaper and saw a story about the trial of a male high school teacher accused of having a sexual relationship with one of his 17-year-old students. The girl, Maggie, was vilified for bringing down a popular teacher.
“No one believed her,” Taddeo says, “but I did before I even met her.”
And so the triumvirate was complete. Ferrari-Adler calls it “one of the most extraordinary books I’ve ever read.” He adds, “At every point in the process, it was riveting to read. Our sales force services the whole building, and we take a poll every year for top picks. Three Women won for this summer.”
Foreign rights have been sold in Brazil, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Portugal, Sweden, and the U.K.
Taddeo had spoken with Gay Talese early on about writing her book and repeated a great quote from him at the lunch that Avid Reader gave her at Prune in the East Village. But she didn’t want me to print it. Ask her when you see her. She’ll be at BookExpo in May, after which she’ll be on the road again—on a 10-city tour.