Lisa Taddeo has fostered a reputation for understanding women’s sexual prowess. In Taddeo’s breakout nonfiction book Three Women, she embedded herself in the lives of three disparate people to explore how their sexual experiences impacted them and their ongoing relationship with sex. The protagonist of her debut novel Animal has endured sexual trauma. Her latest story collection, Ghost Lover, looks at similar themes and examines sexual desire through the perspective of multiple women across nine stories, including the Pushcart-winning “Forty-Two.”
The stories feature a broad spectrum of characters spanning from young adulthood into late middle age, although their relationships are primarily heteronormative. Love and romance are downplayed, while sex is paramount to all of these stories. Characters want it, have it, are jealous of it. However, sex also serves as a lens to interogate subjects like power dynamics, female friendship, and aging.
Throughout the collection, physical attractiveness plays a substantial role in how characters interact. They wield beauty as a weapon, and can be threatened by it. The women want to be wanted. The narrators think nothing of judging the other women they encounter. In “Air Supply,” the narrator compares herself to her friend Sara, saying, “Sara was—and still is—prettier than me, in a slutty 1990s kind of way.” The compliment is halfhearted, and lessened by an insult. They are friends, but also competitors. The comparisons of their attractiveness continue through the story, including their physical differences. The narrator states, “My butt and legs were more exciting. But Sara was a little taller and her neck was a little longer, so at first glance it seemed she had the better body.” The narrator is objectifying herself as a point of pride, even as the two women compete sexually for the attention of two bandmates.
In “Beautiful People,” Jane finds pleasure in the overdose death of Petra, a Bosnian model. Jane is implicitly jealous of Petra’s beauty, and for her thigh gap “through which you could see the whole world.” Nevertheless, when Jane flips through the dead woman’s Instagram – something she’s been doing for a while – she notices Petra has snapped a photograph of a painting Jane owns. Jane seduces a movie star who offers to buy the painting. Despite their intimacy, he still underpays for the painting.
A persistent concern through the collection is how age impacts attractiveness and access to sex. In “Maid Marian,” a reporter’s article spends “an entire paragraph” explaining that “a woman Noni’s age was rather old to have fucked.” The taboo against older women having sex deprives them of power. Nobody seems more aware of this than Joan, who in the story “Forty-Two,” spends much of her time exercising hoping to remain in shape. She prefers sleeping with younger men, as well as eating quality food at good restaurants. Joan has achieved power in her middle age, but it is seen as inappropriate. Meanwhile, by contrast, Molly has youth, but she is racing the clock. The women in her lineage have died of breast cancer in their sixties, and so she is counting out the forty-two years left until she succumbs. For her, aging presents a more immediate threat.
Sex is largely disconnected from love. Jane, in “Beautiful People,” goes as far to say that “it is easier to tell people that something was for money rather than for love.” Love is an afterthought for the women in this collection. There is one exception though in the titular “Ghost Lover.” The protagonist, known by her handle Ghost Lover, created a dating app after having her heart broken. It is the rare instance where the characters are moved by romantic emotion. The app has helped other couples meet and eventually marry, but there is a sense of disdain from Ghost Lover for the success of this app.
Men are not seen favorably in the collection. In the story “Forty-Two,” the narrator observes Jack, an object of desire, “had no idea he is not interesting.” He’s able to achieve what he wants easily, and knows little about consequences. As a result he is particularly unpleasant. His desires are basic, and at one point he “wants to punch something or fuck a slutty girl.” Men are predatory too, like in “Air Supply,” when one of the band members is trying to sleep with the narrator. She is worried about her friend Sara, but he insists she is fine. The narrator finds the horror in how “men who want to fuck are always very sure of everyone who is fine.”
The characters populate the contemporary world, mainly existing in New York City. Taddeo hints at the trendy places they inhabit, or makes suggestions like a farm-to-table wedding. There are less glamorous places that garner a mention, like New Jersey. There are references to the Trump presidency that pin the collection to a specific moment in history. However, outside these specifics, the narratives broadly transcend time and place. The collection arrives in a world conscious of women’s sexuality, but the experiences of the characters are rooted in timelessness. Taddeo has presented a collection unified by women’s sexual power. She depicts characters confident in themselves and empowered by their sexuality. She deploys wry criticism interspersed throughout the narratives to elevate her critiques. Ghost Lover is a successful extension of Taddeo’s social commentary on the lusty desires of femininity.
By Lisa Taddeo
Avid Reader Press
Published June 14, 2022
Ian MacAllen is the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American, forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield in 2022. His writing has appeared in Chicago Review of Books, The Rumpus, The Offing, Electric Literature, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and elsewhere. He serves as the Deputy Editor of The Rumpus, holds an MA in English from Rutgers University, tweets @IanMacAllen and is online at IanMacAllen.com.