Since the remarkable success of her nonfiction debut, Three Women, Lisa Taddeo has specialised in writing with gloves-off candour about female desire, in particular the kind that modern feminists are not supposed to admit to. Ghost Lover, her first collection of stories, is peopled by outwardly successful, empowered women who are emotionally or sexually in thrall to men, often men who are not remotely worth the time spent obsessing over them. Sometimes the women themselves know it – “He has no idea he is not interesting” – but still they persist in their self-abasement: “She wanted him more than her whole life.”
With Three Women, Taddeo established a talent for anatomising the contradictions inherent in (hetero)sexual power dynamics, the nuances of consent and how differently desire and fulfilment can appear to the woman doing the longing, compared with those judging from the sidelines. The characters in Ghost Lover are so many lenses through which to examine these same questions. Ari, the protagonist of the title story, has become a wealthy Netflix sensation by creating an app that messages potential dates on your behalf (“A way for girls, mainly, to be the coolest version of themselves, inoculated in practice against their desire”). But Ari is trapped in her own curdled love for her ex, Nick, who is about to marry a woman 10 years younger; Ari’s conviction that publicly denouncing him for an ambiguous instance of sexual assault will speed his return to her is as pitiable as it is deluded. But the reader also knows that Ari was abused as a teen by her stepfather. The tangled motives of early sexual encounters – including young women’s apparent complicity in their own manipulation – and the ways in which these shape women’s later responses to men is a recurring theme in Taddeo’s narratives, though she is careful never to draw moralistic straight lines.
Several of the stories are set in LA or New York, their protagonists acutely conscious of both cities’ premium on youth, thinness, beauty and wealth, and how the latter can only partially compensate a woman for her loss of the others. It’s a bleak outlook, though one that lends itself nicely to waspish humour. “BE NICE TO YOU, said signs outside Sabon… But the problem, Joan knew, was that if you be nice to you, you get fat.” Grace, single at 51, has given up on the dream of finding love in favour of “merely the idea of not dying alone. Merely that. She was considering lesbianism. They took older women.”
Not all the stories are directly about sex; some deal with female friendship, or mothers and daughters, but these too, at their centre, are concerned with the ways in which a need for male attention dictates women’s interactions with one another. Some readers will feel a shock of recognition – Taddeo has a knack for saying what women often feel they can’t say aloud – while others will find the variations on a theme repetitive, if not downright depressing.
The book’s biggest weakness is Taddeo’s fondness for overblown similes that strive so hard for originality they become completely unmoored from meaning. “The more a man didn’t want her, the more it made her vagina tingle. It was like a fish that tried to panfry itself.” (What?) “She felt like she had 18 clitorises, and all of them couldn’t drive.” “It was early fall, the temperature of ham sandwiches.” There are so many of these that you start to wonder if her editor was on extended leave.
What she does so well in these stories, though, is to force the reader to acknowledge the grey areas and ambiguities around sexual power play. It’s not so much the contradictions between “he said/she said” as between “she said/she thought”, and in this regard her characters are spikily, uncomfortably believable.