The cover depicts a still life of fruit, a Flemish master maybe, where desire meets decay and ripe meets rot. A still life of how feminine sexuality is seen and experienced in the world ― all at once it’s fresh and open, ready to devour and discuss and dissect, but in a moment it can turn, and suddenly society sees it as disgusting, deplorable, disposable.
Three Women by Lisa Taddeo is a book that I originally thought was fiction, but to read it and realise it was non-fiction was a marvel. It follows three strands, three women, three voices, three explorations of sexuality and desire. Too close to home there’s Maggie, a high school student who has found herself in a relationship with her married teacher; then there’s Lina, in a loveless and sexless marriage, sleeping with someone else; and finally, Sloane, married to a man who likes to watch her have sex with other people.
There’s not a book I have read that engages with sex (the personal and the political), as earnestly and as honestly as Three Women does. And as long-form journalism, it sits in a space of discomfort. Taddeo didn’t have the tools and luxury of the fictional form to present three stories that finish neatly and nicely. Like the lives we lead, it’s raw and heartbreaking and too real.
But it comes back to the cover too. I read it all in once day, and now it sits on the shelf, face up fruit forward: Cornelis de Heem, A Garland of Fruit. Fruit ― so synonymous with sexuality since well before the peach emoji. There’s (of course) the blushing soft bums of peaches that seem to suddenly be everywhere in literature, plums, blueberries, grapes green and fresh, overripe boysenberries, cherries bright red, and in the corner ― almost apart from the rest ― a pomegranate, with a bite taken from it. It’s easy to remember the first sensual act, Eve’s eating of the apple, but it’s said to more likely be a pomegranate ― a fruit she would have had a hard time eating. It makes me think that Eve wanted to eat the fruit (sacrilege!), and knew exactly what she was doing breaking open that thick skin and picking out the seeds one by one: a deliberate and detailed act. I don’t think the world gives Eve enough credit ― she was the one who originally chose knowledge over ignorance.
Eve chose to be woke.
I would eat the fruit from The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil ― wouldn’t you? I too would choose to be woke. Just as I choose to read the news every day and expose myself to the horrors and the heartbreak of the world. Every day. If we didn’t eat the fruit, we wouldn’t know. If we didn’t know, we wouldn’t have empathy. If we didn’t have empathy, we wouldn’t make change.
It’s not the fruit of evil, it’s the fruit of knowledge ― evil already existed in the world, she just chose to know about it.
Whatever the fruit, it was said to be forbidden, and we are all Eves bearing the punishment for her willingness to be woke, to be aware, to be sexual. This comes to fruition (ha!) as Maggie, Lina, and Sloane (in their real lives remember) choose to be sexual and are punished for it. The pursuit of desire and sexual satisfaction for women is still taboo, and women aren’t given the tools to navigate. Instead we are slut shamed and left lonely and longing.
While ultimately a beautiful book, it begs for answers. The cover’s fruit is hanging, tied with a blue ribbon: beauty, purity, control. The fruit is for show, it is to be seen. Through these three, and the fruit they bear, Taddeo “poses for the reader the all too familiar question of when and why and by whom women’s stories are believed―and when and why and by whom they are not”. By reading these stories, we are choosing to eat the fruit ― to pluck it from its branch, despite the pretty blue ribbon ― and by doing so we choose to know the knowledge of evil. But remember, it’s knowledge of the good too. And it’s what we do with this knowledge that matters.