For me, reading has always been more immersive than the movies, more sensual than food, and more emotionally raw than the deepest conversations. A book full of beautiful sentences and loveable characters has always had the ability to render me powerless. I don’t eat. I don’t sleep. I don’t talk. I just read. The real world is fuzzy while the book-world I’m living in is vibrant. I am the book and the book is me, and when I’m done it’s embedded chemically in my brain. Emerging back into the real world is a squinty and unwelcome hangover, coupled with guilt for stealing so much time away from real life obligations. Writing about these books is an attempt to retain that which I loved most about each and to bring lessons learned into my real life in a coherent way.
It wasn’t intentional, but I read three first books by journalists over the holidays. Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner and Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams are novels, while Three Women by Lisa Taddeo is nonfiction, but reads like a novel with omniscient segues into character’s minds. As I settled into the third book, I was struck by the way each tackled intertwined issues of identity, sexuality, and desire from the perspective of women in relationships with men, positing sexual and professional relationships as power dynamics, where defiant women who had previously been playing “by the rules” made conscious decisions to break them.
While the collapse of societal norms is a safe plot device, in this case each book felt strangely prescient, for me personally, as a married, middle-aged professional in a male-dominated yet female-populated field and also as part of a larger movement of women. Especially at the precipice of 2020, these books felt relevant; this is a year when our cultural organizations desperately want to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women winning the right to vote while an accused rapist is president promoting anti-woman legislation within the larger context of a democracy that has never elected a woman president and shows little sign of doing so.
There are so many mixed messages for women in an era where we are legally guaranteed equal treatment, while societal norms typically produce antithetical results. These books were each emotionally resonant and heartbreaking, featuring female protagonists suffocating under the unrealistic expectations that partners, lovers, family, friends, and society reserve for women. In many cases, the reader exists inside the minds of women standing their ground and learning how to fight back, after a lifetime of victimhood, experiencing violent pushback, and the anger comes from being told we simply don’t count as much as men do.
For me, all three books subtly presented modern society as vicious and misogynistic multi-layered constructions where women are punished for stepping even a little bit outside of prescribed boundaries created to keep men comfortable. But, rather than being depressing, this admission was refreshing and even hopeful, like ripping off a Band-Aid and allowing a festering wound some much-needed air.
Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Genre: Narrative Nonfiction/ Journalistic Literary Case Study
Most Memorable Symbol: Beef Lo Mein
I was sucked into this book after listening to the author, whose witty and wicked profile of Gwyneth Paltrow for the New York Times Magazine was memorable, read the first chapter of her novel aloud on The Cut’s Tuesday podcast. The novel starts with the presumed protagonist, Toby Fleishman, a 40-something Jewish male doctor in Manhattan who has been recently left by his ambitious and much more successful non-Jewish wife. Toby is a short man with an insecurity complex who loves his two children and his work, and for the first time in his life, he is luxuriating in the sexy attentions of the beautiful, successful women he had always believed to have been way out of his league, encountering them in droves through the dating apps.
“His phone was aglow from sunup to sundown … with texts that contained G-string and ass cleavage and underboob and sideboob and just straight-up boob…” New York is “now crawling with women who wanted him… Women who would fuck you like they owed you money.” The author describes the photos of lacy bits and nekked body parts, the dirty talk and sexting, and the multiple casual encounters Toby is inundated with—and at the start, you are happy for the poor guy because his wife was so horrible to him, as if he deserves all this sexual attention after suffering for 15 years with a person so obsessed with her image of success and social climbing that she was not a human at all.
As you continue deeper into the story, you realize the narrator is actually a character, Elizabeth (Libby), a Jewish woman and a friend of Toby’s from college who was formerly a journalist for GQ, a truth-teller surrounded by men who was able to successfully navigate this world until she was devoured by it. Of her former job she says that the only way she could tell her story was to “Trojan horse your way into a man, and people would give a shit about you … My voice only came alive when I was talking about someone else,” a clever metaphor for her role in this novel.
When Toby re-enters Libby’s life, she is a stay-at-home mother of two in New Jersey and she is depressed, but unsure whether to go back into the male-dominated field she left, to write a book, or to simply give up and embrace motherhood and a husband who loves her. Instead, like many of us in our 40s including her friend Toby, she embraces her adolescent fantasies that were never realized. She smokes cigarettes, drinks too much, talks for hours with Toby on the phone about his dissolving marriage and new dating life, and stays out late while her husband numbly takes the kids home and puts them to bed.
At a certain point, Libby grows frustrated by Toby’s self-obsession and lack of interest in her life. “I’m a real person with a real soul and I could use a friend, too,” she says, and Toby replies, “What possible need could you have?” At this point, the reader reorients themselves to see Toby, previously the hero and protagonist, as unreliable, and Libby comes into focus. You realize she has been telling his story because it’s what she’s always done, telling it through his eyes.
Libby’s story turns when she encounters Toby’s ex-wife, whom she had never liked over the course of their seemingly miserable marriage. The narrator is shocked to discover that this “other woman” isn’t at all who she thought she was, and as they become closer to each other out of need, the narrator begins to rethink her own relationship with Toby, her marriage, and her career choices. I would love to report that these two women mend their broken selves relying on “women power” but it’s way more complicated than that.
The big reveal is that the contrast between the career-driven, ambitious social climber ex-wife (“untrustworthy” and a “bad mother”) and the narrator, a housewife who has given up on a career (also: “bad mother” and “sellout”), disappears; they are more similar than different, both broken and confused about how to be themselves in the world that does not value them.
As women over a certain age, we are all left with the same questions: How does a woman succeed in today’s world? Is it possible for a woman to have more ambition, success, and wealth than her husband without being condemned by him and others for it? How can a woman, whether a self-made millionaire or a housewife, escape the weight of everyone else’s expectations, especially those of female peers? Why do we allow men to assume these types of careerist, work-centered roles in a marriage without criticism while a woman is bombarded with negativity and judgment? Why are young women told they can “have it all”—work, love, family—and then punished for attempting to succeed in male-dominated fields?
If neither of these women is happy with her choices, forced into compromises that require them to hide vital pieces of themselves away like Horcruxes, where does that leave the rest of us? And what is the motivation of a seemingly “good guy” like Toby, who is able to sleep with multiple women he meets on dating apps for fun, but runs in the opposite direction when these women present themselves as human beings with actual needs? In the end, both women have to accept their choices and realize that “whatever kind of woman you are, even when you’re a lot of kinds of women, you’re still always just a woman, which is to say you’re always a little bit less than a man.” Ouch.
Three Women by Lisa Taddeo
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Genre: Narrative Nonfiction/ Journalistic Literary Case Study
Most Memorable Symbol: Twilight novel full of sexy post-it notes
“The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is ‘What does a woman want?'” Freud said in The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, his biography written by Ernest Jones. In a world where there are hundreds of words used mostly by men to describe women who choose to be sexual beings, it’s striking that there are so few words or phrases used by women to describe themselves. This is a book that attempts to give women a voice about their own romantic choices, sexuality, and desire.
Of the three books that I’m including here, this one was the most emotional, and it read like a lyrical and poetic novel, defying common assumptions about nonfiction. Journalist and author Lisa Taddeo spent eight years talking to three women in three different US cities about sex and desire, and talking to their family members, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Written from a variety of perspectives and based upon hundreds of interviews, Three Women is an investigation into female desire, which ties into sexual acts and love, as well as the depth of emotion that lasts, sometimes indefinitely, around unrequited relationships. It chronicles the lives of three different real-life women, all white and two of three Catholic, whose names and locations have been changed to protect anonymity.
Three Women focuses on their experiences before, during, and after nontraditional, secret romantic relationships called affairs, which are not sanctioned for women under current societal norms. In one case, Maggie, a 17-year-old student has an affair with her married high school teacher and later sues him for misconduct and faces the judgment of her town. In another, Lina, a young woman who was raped by three boys in high school and given a reputation as a slut, is now a mother of two in a marriage to a man who is stable but refuses to kiss or touch her. Her story revolves around a rekindled affair with her high school boyfriend, the rediscovery of passion, but also the growing realization of her own devaluation by the men in her life.
The third story is about Sloane, a wealthy woman married to a restaurateur, who engages in threesomes and affairs at her husband’s request. He chooses the men and women for her and she attempts to navigate her own feelings and desires, staying emotionally distant from outside partners, while maintaining a solid bond to her husband. When the wife of one of their lovers finds them out, predictably Sloane—not her husband—is the person blamed for the affair. Her husband is not asked to take on any responsibility and she feels that it is her responsibility to accept the condemnation and nasty rumors in order to protect him and her marriage.
The author said she originally wanted to write a book about desire from the perspective of both men and women, but over the course of many interviews, she found male desire to be stunted and less complex than a woman’s. “In some cases, there was prolonged courting; sometimes the courting was closer to grooming; but mostly, the stories ended in the stammering pulses of orgasm,” she writes. “And whereas the man’s throttle died in the closing salvo of the orgasm, I found that the woman’s was often just beginning. There was complexity and beauty and violence even, in the way the women experienced the same event. In these ways and more, it was the female parts of an interlude that, in my eyes, came to stand for the whole of what longing in America looks like.”
There is a lot of sex in this book, but it’s not about sex. It’s about the meaning and reasons for sexual acts, the rules that a patriarchal society builds around women’s bodies, marriage, economics, ownership, and family, and what happens when women break these rules.
The double standard between men and women, shockingly virulent even today, became so clear in the way that friends, family, and communities react when these affairs spiral out of control and secrets are revealed. The women are blamed, ridiculed, harassed, yelled at, threatened, and seen as the guilty party by other women, whereas the men are exonerated, celebrated, or excused because this kind of behavior is expected for men.
The silver lining happens in the learning and sensitivity in the writing and the author weaves in her own mother’s stories, attempting to understand why men want to adore and simultaneously “ruin” a woman, the way communities reinforce these double standards, and the lack of acceptance and masculinization for women who are not satisfied by the romantic options society has allowed them—wife/virgin/martyr vs. slut—and choose to indulge their romantic desires that are outside of the norms that most people find comfortable.
Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Genre: Bridget Jones-esque Coming-of-Age Novel for Smart, Sexy, and “Difficult” Multi-Cultural Women
Most Memorable Symbol: Kiss My Teeth and Corgis
Of all three, this book made me cry the most, which is high praise. Queenie Jenkins is a 25-year-old Jamaican British woman who, like many children of immigrants, exists simultaneously within and outside of two cultures. She has just come out of a breakup with Tom, the white man she thought she would marry, and she is caught in a downward spiral of dating apps, casual sex, partying, and panic attacks. Queenie works at a national newspaper with mainly white colleagues, and she dates white men because she grew up with an abusive stepfather who called her a bounty (the candy bar) because it’s a chocolate bar that’s white on the inside.
Despite signs to the contrary, Queenie believes that she and her ex-boyfriend are on a temporary break, so nothing she does during the off period matters. She deliberately seeks out men who are emotionally unavailable to distract herself and to keep her emotions free from anything that will complicate her eventual reunification with Tom. Queenie meets men in bars, on dating apps, and even at work, and we keenly feel the spike of excitement at the flirtation with each and the disappointment, dread, and anger at the racist, misogynist, and predatory ways these men reveal themselves. The reader intimately experiences Queenie’s disappointments and frustrations through a sequence of shitty men—some single, some cheating on girlfriends, some married—that devolve into abusive situations and workplace harassment, and when it seems it can’t get any worse, it does.
Another powerful subtext in the book is the evolution of Queenie’s childhood neighborhood, Brixton, and its gentrification into a white, hip, wealthy neighborhood where Queenie no longer feels welcome. A search for comfort food at the Caribbean bakery of her childhood, “etched in [her] memories of Saturday shopping trips with [her] grandmother” reveals a trendy burger bar full of young couples, where “the men were all wearing colorful oversize shirts, and their female companions were all wearing colorful overpriced coats.”
Queenie chronicles the routine microaggressions in the workplace, bars, shops, and public places that lead to her exhaustion and breakdown. In a casual conversation with a co-worker whose native language is Spanish, she is told, “You are very lucky to be working here! There are others like you, except not the same color.” When the woman explains that the darker skinned employees work in IT, and Queenie opens her mouth to respond, she is told: “Don’t worry, my husband is black, so I know about you and your people.” After she is ridiculed by her editorial team for pitching yet another Black Lives Matter story, she says nothing but the reader is privy to her thoughts: “I’d been trying to pretend hadn’t always been a room full of white not-quite-liberals whose opinions, like their money, had been inherited.” There are awkward taxi rides, interviews with potential white roommates, and public arguments with aggressive men where the authorities automatically blame Queenie for being the instigator. With all of it, the sting of being hyper-aware of her own decorum and appearance as a black woman in London is keenly felt.
The bright spot in this story is Queenie’s family and group of girlfriends, who are smart and loving and hilarious. Their group texts (the Corgi’s) and emails are included in quote bubbles that look and function like real text and email threads, bringing a familiar vernacular and insight into the ways that dialogue can be understood in the present moment.
Not only does this novel take on the common stereotypes that are attached to Black women’s bodies and sexuality, the author writes about relationships, conflict, and sex with a sharp-eyed candor that places power in Queenie’s hands, at least in telling her own story fairly. Queenie’s descent into depression and self-destructive behavior, as well as her eventual decision to seek out help, is poignant and raw, especially her desire for love and acceptance while refusing it from healthy sources. At the end of the book, you emerge from a dark depression with Queenie, broken yet resilient, proud and full of fight, and poised to be able to love yourself and others, after a lifetime of deflecting emotion.
Books for Women by Women Should Be Read by Men
Whenever I meet a man who loudly proclaims how much he loves and respects women, it’s an obvious tell to the contrary. It’s like meeting someone who immediately tells you how classy they are. What reason does he have to make such a proclamation? And what is he selling? I personally know a number of men who do not seem to understand that women are people, that gender and sexual orientation (and other factors which cannot be controlled) impact every second of every day and that a balanced playing field between genders is going to feel oddly unfair to men, after a millennia of unfair advantages.
Within a patriarchal and misogynist society, we have a long way to go before women can be considered to be “just people,” not beautiful muses or caretakers or subordinates or fuckable objects. And perhaps because men are not expected to understand this (Brett Cavanaugh, ahem), the majority of men seem clueless about how to respect women the way they would another man whom they view as equal.
If there are any men who truly want to understand the way a woman’s mind and body works, kindly add these three books to your list. While they are particularly valuable to women readers who want to understand themselves, their relationships, and their roles within society more clearly, these books should really be marketed to men, devoured, and then committed to memory.
The first step toward a more equitable society is education, and excellent books offer opportunities to comprehend complicated and hidden facts and, more importantly, empathy for those who are different. In Queenie, Fleishman Is in Trouble, and Three Women, readers of all sexes are given compelling reasons to consider power dynamics between women and men, realized in the workplace, in friendships, and in sexual relationships, a knowledge and understanding which has never been more necessary.
Support your local bookstores! You can purchase these books at Greedy Read (where they were photographed), Ivy Bookshop, and others. If you local bookshop doesn’t have them, they’ll order them for you.
Editor’s note: Gender is a social construct and the use of the words female and male, women and man, are intended to be inclusive of those whose gender is not determined by biological factors.