Lisa Taddeo’s bestselling debut, Three Women, made headlines as much for its process as its theme; Taddeo spent eight years moving around the US, immersing herself in her subjects in pursuit of an intimate portrait of the sex lives of (straight, white) American women. In each of her three case studies lurked the shadow of past or present abuse; female desire, the book seemed to conclude, is inseparable from what has been done to us by men.
Her first novel, Animal, explores the same territory. “I am depraved,” announces her narrator, Joan, with a mixture of pride and shame. At 36, she has a fierce sexual appetite, but she also regards sex as currency, an approach she learned at a young age from her aunt: “She taught me that men will use you unless you use them first.” Much of Joan’s inner monologue – and her dialogue – is concerned with the ambiguity she feels about her own desires, and her obsession with the constant power plays between men and women. “There are rapes, and then there are the rapes we allow to happen, the ones we shower and get ready for,” another woman tells her.
After Joan’s older, married lover shoots himself in front of her while she is having dinner with a new married lover – all of which is recounted in the opening paragraph – she takes herself on a pilgrimage to Los Angeles in search of a young woman named Alice, to whom she has a connection, though they have never met. She insinuates her way into Alice’s life, even as she is pursued by the grief-maddened wife and daughter of her dead lover, and all this is punctuated by the piecemeal revelation of Joan’s childhood trauma: the death of her parents and the terrible events that led her to crave “men who had big happy lives of which I would never be a part”.
In the past few years, fiction and drama by women has recognised the appeal of flawed and angry antiheroines who reject the demand to be “likable”, and Joan is recognisably part of a line that includes Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, Michaela Coel’s Arabella and the protagonists of Megan Nolan’s Acts of Desperation and Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman. Her combination of raw need, self-absorption and cynicism is initially refreshing, until it starts to feel arch. She is prone to pronouncements that have an air of hard-won wisdom, but on closer inspection sound hollow: “A lot about Alice was a contradiction, but that was true of most beautiful women.” “Men go wild for a woman who is quiet like a cat.”
Having staked out her territory – of extreme candour around sex – in Three Women, Taddeo more than fulfils expectations on that score. There is barely a sexual experience that doesn’t feature, and most have a negative taint. Rapes of various kinds, orgies, lascivious older men, carelessly cruel younger men, child abuse, sex that is transactional or masochistic or fuelled by revenge. Even good sex with the one man she loves leaves Joan feeling “empty and shitty and stupid”.
“You are all of us. You are the parts of us that no one wants to admit to,” Alice tells Joan, and perhaps this is what Taddeo intends, for Joan to represent the animal nature that women are taught to deny or repress. But it doesn’t quite work. Three Women was so compelling because the frankness had the stamp of authenticity; these were real lives, real damage, patiently elicited from years of conversations and transformed into narrative. In fiction, the same explicitness necessarily feels manufactured. In addition, there is a Grand Guignol level of excess to Joan’s trauma and its consequences that has the effect of distancing the reader from the serious questions at the novel’s heart.
“If there are too many bad things, [people] plug their ears and vilify the victim,” Joan observes, towards the end. Animal’s biggest flaw is that there are simply too many bad things piled on one another and as a result they lose their emotional impact.
None of which is to say that it isn’t also a compulsive read. Taddeo’s prose glitters with all the dark wit and flashes of insight that readers and critics admired in Three Women, and she is especially sharp on the ways in which women perform for one another. Like Coel’s I May Destroy You, Animal is unafraid to wrestle with big questions about sexual empowerment and consent, and doesn’t pretend to have found neat answers.