Take a Good Look: Lisa Taddeo’s Ghost Lover

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For three years, I scheduled Brazilian waxes every month with a soft-spoken woman named Crystal who lived with her boyfriend, dog, and mother and who caught me up on their domestic family life like one would a college roommate over Smirnoff. Sometimes, when our conversations went particularly deep, she’d delay the appointment by plucking the stray hairs along my inner thigh with a tweezer under her blinding fluorescent light. “Crystal” was really her name. She was always as gentle as she could be. I am grateful to her for that.

I scheduled my first Brazilian after a particularly vicious fight with my then-boyfriend who shouted something that, for years, filled me with a terrible, stultifying shame: The reason he did not go down on me wasn’t because he himself didn’t like to do it, but because my pubic hair amplified the odor of urine. It’s disgusting, he said in closing, before exiting the room. It was the unfettered cruelty in his voice that stuck with me the longest, even after the words themselves had lost their sting. Subsequently I spent hundreds upon hundreds of dollars from my teaching salary tearing hair out of the most sensitive part of my body. It took me nearly a decade afterward to accept my body without adhering to the aesthetics of porn.

The violence of patriarchal beauty standards afflicts all bodies, regardless of gender, sexuality, race, or ableness. And the patriarchy is particularly pernicious for rewarding, albeit in limited spheres, those who maintain a particular type of body (lithe, hairless) that makes the bodies of cis-heterosexual men sit up, stiff as wolves. As Jia Tolentino states in Trick Mirror, “porn and modeling and Instagram influencing are the only careers in which women regularly outearn men.” No living writer is as acutely aware of the catch-22 of men looking at women and women being looked at as journalist and novelist Lisa Taddeo, whose first two books Three Women (2019) and Animal (2021) deftly explore female desire, obsession, and rage. In her latest, Ghost Lover, a collection of short stories, she continues to depict the quotidian brutality of heterosexuality and the verve of female friendship and competition with moxie and bite.

I was first introduced to Taddeo when I purchased Animal in the late summer of 2021 at the recommendation of my sister. I was thirty-three. I had $50 in my bank account and half a quart of ice cream in my refrigerator for dinner. It felt exactly right to read Taddeo’s novel in this state, which is to say: desperate. I consumed Animal furiously, in a single gulp, unwilling to stop and savor anything. It is this kind of voracious appetite that encapsulates Taddeo’s protagonists, whether the depraved Joan in Animal or the demeaned Lina in Three Women whose husband refuses to kiss her. Amongst them is a gargantuan need for love, sex, and, above all, agency, in the face of “the tiny, daily rapes” Taddeo writes about in her newest collection.

My second exposure to Taddeo comes when my current boyfriend surprises me with Ghost Lover. I am thirty-four, crashing with him for the summer, and drinking all his mid-shelf bourbon and good wine. I am vaguely working on a collection of poems and flagrantly not working on my thesis. Most days I do not get dressed or brush my hair, and yet I still prioritize my pleasure more frequently than Sabrina Tavernise hosts The Daily. I don’t feel vindicated that dating in my thirties has allowed me to harness my own sexual agency, but I am astonished at how it still shocks me: Desire without effort; beauty without pain.

Desire, beauty, and pain are bedmates in Ghost Lover. I read it, like Animal, in one sitting. Taddeo’s writing demands a kind of zealous attention. She is unrelenting. Her word choice, impeccable. The only occasion to put down her book is to write “toothsome,” “debonair,” or “redolent” on scrap bits of paper or to pour another drink. And it is not just her precision with language, but also her precision with human experience, particularly sex, that mesmerizes. Taddeo’s writing touches all the edges of sexual currency and its pitted center with assuredness and dark humor. There is a moment in “Grace Magorian” when the titular character masturbates and immediately thinks of her father. “It was best to think of one’s parents directly after an orgasm,” Taddeo writes, “when there is so much open space.” It’s a line so candid I chuff with laughter, caught off guard by Grace’s frank admission.

Taddeo’s writing about sex frequently elicits a startled smirk, a knowing nod. When Ari, the protagonist in “Ghost Lover,” sleeps with a friend in business school after a breakup, Taddeo writes, “He felt like a soft iron inside you, something plain and graceless.” When Grace sleeps with an architect his semen “looks like paint chips” flaking out of her the morning after. In the concluding story, “A Suburban Weekend,” Fern, who has lost both of her parents, hooks up with a stranger in the same room as her friend Liv and another boy. “They fucked dementedly,” Taddeo writes. “[Fern] felt more at peace with this boy she barely knew than with Liv, who always needed to know what she was doing, and how she was feeling.” Sometimes the shield of anonymity is so powerful that, without the lance of love, we feel immortal. Nothing can wound us when we are unknowable. The duality between desperately craving intimacy and resolutely remaining a cipher is a fine line Taddeo toes like a gymnast.

Being open and vulnerable is an exercise in trust, but to simply be looked at, to be like a sculpture, can be just as terrifying. In “Forty-Two,” the protagonist Joan is determined to look beautiful despite, or perhaps because of, her age. Bartenders either ignore her or look at her like she’s “a ten-dollar bill.” At forty-one she sleeps with a professor who “looked at her in a way that she knew meant he had recently fucked a student, someone breathy and Macintosh assed, full of Virginia Woolf and hope, and he was upset now at this reedy downgrade . . . He tweaked her bony nipples and the most she felt of it was his eyes on the wall in front of her.” Taddeo uncompromisingly illuminates the compulsory rituals of heterosexual courtship: the preening and primping, the eyelash tinting and barre class, all those fat-free hours of work for a handful of minutes that engenders a similar silence and strain as a particularly competitive game of Scrabble.

In Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Assault,” she writes, “I am waylaid by Beauty.” Beauty detains us as much as it delights us. It imprisons us as much as it promises to pay us dividends. There is ouroborosian insatiability in this dichotomy: to devour beauty as if an elixir while simultaneously losing ourselves in the unending, thankless, and ever expensive task of maintaining it. In “Beautiful People,” Jane, besotted with an art-collecting actor, waits for him to call. “She opened a jar of grapefruit scrub she’d bought six months back,” Taddeo writes. “She cleaned between her toes.” When he finally arrives and refutes a kiss, “Jane wanted to hurt him, kill him. It was a clearer urge than her desire.” Rejection, especially after so much effort, is enough to elicit an eruption of rage. It’s not looks that can kill, but the lack of them. Even still, I don’t doubt that every woman, at one time, has felt as call-girl Bree Daniels in the 1971 film Klute feels when she admits, “What I would really like to be is faceless and bodiless and left alone.” And yet, nonetheless, the dual urge remains: to be affirmed, admired, liked. The familiar thrill of it pawing at you on its hind legs, warm and panting. Definitively annoying, sometimes adorable, and always present.

In Taddeo’s introduction to Three Women she writes, “one inheritance of living under the male gaze for centuries is that heterosexual women often look at other women the way a man would.” Taddeo illuminates this internalized gaze and awareness in “Air Supply,” when two eighteen-year-old friends travel to Puerto Rico. The protagonist reflects on how all the men blatantly stare at them on the street. Taddeo elaborates,

Those long stares, top to bottom, taking a whole person in. Now the world is different, but back then we didn’t think about it. If anything, we measured it. We each tried to figure out who was getting more looks. Sara had straight hair and very easy features. You didn’t have to stare at her for too long to determine she was pretty. It was a foregone conclusion. I tried to help people out by doing sexual things, lassoing the straw of a drink with my tongue, cocking my neck and body. Nothing worried me more than someone having to calculate my worth, and my having to watch them do it.

In each of these instances, whether the woman is a teenager or in her forties, the effort to both be, and feel, beautiful is ubiquitous. Yes, men are rapacious or indifferent in Taddeo’s stories, but women are also ruthlessly punitive with their caloric intake, workout regimes, and public positioning. It is the curse of living in a misogynistic man’s world: to measure your self-worth by a thigh-gap, rather than self-fulfillment. As Taddeo resolutely reminds us in “Padua, 1966,” “Everybody likes a story with a beautiful woman and this one has two.” But the absolute horror so many of these characters feel at the loss of a potential partner or aging is not merely about vanity. These women are not modern Narcissi, but economically unstable, profoundly lonely, vengeful, survivors of childhood sexual assault, or orphans. There is a precarity to their existence, whether financial or emotional, that underscores Taddeo’s adage: “This was life. Fucking and unfucking you with the chanciness of cancer.”

In the face of such instability, these women cultivate rich interior lives, full of fantasy, obsession, torment, and pleasure. In this way, they are also writers. There is Ari in “Ghost Lover,” who plans to divulge at an awards ceremony the reason why her relationship to the illustrious Nick ended, thus publicly shaping the contours of her own narrative. There is Grace Magorian, in her 50s, tirelessly curating her About Me section on a dating app so that she can be the perfect woman, a man’s dream. “Nineteen sixty-six sounded like a terrific year for wine,” she acknowledges as she adjusts her algorithm, “but not for a woman to be born.” There is Fern, who sleeps with the married Chip after he presses a vial of cocaine into her palm. Years ago, when her parents were still alive, Fern drove home at 4 a.m. to find her mother awake, angry with worry. In the present tense, Fern again drives home soused, but no one is waiting for her. You can repeat parts of the past. You can’t undo others. Each of these women are authoring their own experience in the ways available to them, limited and self-sabotaging as they are. As Ari reflects, “You have always been able to alchemize a wrong into a positive. It’s one of the ways you got here.” To turn pain into art is alchemical: a process of adjusting, of editing, of work.

Taddeo knows this work like one would a partner: the banalities and the boredoms, the hungers and the pains. And she gives voice to pain’s aftershocks in the mouths of women who do not ultimately get the happy endings they so desperately crave. Instead, her characters are cowed by past traumas, rejections, women younger than them, dead models, or deli sandwiches slick with mayonnaise. Nonetheless they are orchestrating their own experiences, however imperfect or unlikeable. They are making choices for themselves while staring down the barrel of their circumstances, thumbing the trigger of self-destruction like a sore. With each attempt to alchemize they are indelibly human—which is to say messy and mangy like me.

When I think about my own fraught history with, and relationship to, the male gaze and beauty, I think about Aphrodite and her inception. How it was the dismembered penis of Ouranos, flung into the sea by his murderous son Cronos, that birthed her whole. How the goddess rose from the red foamed waves like a cut flower, impeccable and ivory. How she walked out of the water without looking back to consider the carnage behind her. How the concept of beauty is always already tarnished: It is violence, after all, which bore it. In the pages of Ghost Lover that violence is so intimately familiar that it is not a treacly Blue Hawaii or tequila shot that causes “my throat [to] burn in a way that ma[kes] me feel alive,” but Taddeo’s blazing prose. The clarity of her voice courses through me, waking me up to the realization that I never wished to be waylaid by beauty. The desire was, and is, to write my own story, like these women, however imperfectly. Look at me, I dare you, I want to say, alongside them, in tandem. Look at me, right here, at the point of articulation. 

Hannah Bonner's poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Bear Review, Pigeon Pages, Rattle, The Hopkins Review, The Pinch Journal, The Vassar Review, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, TriQuarterly, and Two Peach. Her essays have appeared, or are forthcoming in, The Rumpus, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Den of Geek, The Essay Daily, and VIDA. She is a creative nonfiction MFA candidate at the University of Iowa and the poetry editor at Brink. More from this author →