Fatal Attraction: Inside the intoxicating depravity of Lisa Taddeo's Animal
It's impossible to talk about Animal without talking about 2019's Three Women. That book, which follows the sexual and emotional lives of women, became the kind of cultural phenomenon that will forever follow Lisa Taddeo. Animal flows out of its predecessor, but where Women deals with the perils of heteronormative gender politics, Animal deals in the ways the system pushes women to the brink; and where Women is in conversation with #MeToo, Animal is in conversation with the anger that follows the reckoning.
"Everyone likes to talk about the notion of female rage, but it doesn't just pop out of nowhere," says Taddeo, 41. "Centuries of the patriarchy have driven us to react in specific ways."
Taddeo has spent the past decade of her life entrenched in these issues — there were eight years of research for her 2019 breakout, and even now, as she gives this interview from her home in Connecticut, she is juggling the promotion of Animal with the preparations for Women's upcoming Showtime adaptation. She says it's hard to tell where the subject matter ends and she begins — her new protagonist feels like a Fourth Woman.
The novel opens with Joan, as she drives from New York to Los Angeles after witnessing her (older, married) boss, with whom she was having an affair, shoot himself inside a restaurant. Joan is an orphan, and flashbacks detail a traumatic youth marked by sexual violence, as well as the reckless young adulthood of a woman who has become untethered. Joan describes herself as depraved, but she isn't a victim: "The deprivation has been useful to me," the character says. As her past and present storylines unfurl, the reader discovers the full picture of what men have done to her — and what she has chosen to do about it.
While Three Women was a commercial and critical success, Taddeo recalls "pearl-clutching" reactions to the material—the book's central characters have extramarital affairs, in addition to strong sexual desires that are presented without apology, something that men have been doing for eons—that she chalks up to America's "puritanical hangover" (She toured all over Europe on the book's promotional tour, and noticed a stark difference among the two audiences).
There is also ample difficult material in Animal, and Taddeo's already noticed traces of our collective book-burning proclivity in early feedback. "We still do these things in the shadows," she says of the novel's sexual elements. "And we don't want to hear that we do them." The violence that Joan witnesses and receives at the hands of men seem extreme, but the author insists that it isn't meant as a justification for her final breaking point — and that Joan's experience is "the median" of what Taddeo has seen through her research and in her personal life.
Most readers will recognize themselves in the book's sexual politics, whether it's Joan's internalized misogyny ("Part of my child's brain hated her because she wasn't young enough or even beautiful enough. Because she wasn't strong enough. Or because she was too strong. Because she was so complex where my father was not. I hated my mother, in short, for being a woman") in Taddeo's eerily astute descriptions of flirting ("They were frozen in that airless atmosphere of men waiting to aggress. The way they stared — lips parted in a lively leer, eyes gleaming — often forced the woman to say something first, often out of fear.").
The existential crises that surround womanhood (is it possible to be safe? Can men be good?) are as loud in the novel as they are off the page, but Taddeo believes her book is optimistic in the end. "The hopefulness in Animal is in Joan being able to say what she needs to say, about her life, out loud," she says. "The hope comes from the truth."
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