Review: Animal by Lisa Taddeo
Lisa Taddeo has made a name for herself as a chronicler of female desire. Her first book, Three Women, was a work of narrative journalism that generated more praise than rancor — an achievement given that it was touted as “the consummate book about female desire in the United States,” a marketing tactic that made even Taddeo nervous. (In a podcast interview with The Sewanee Review, Taddeo admits that expectations were outsized: “I knew that it was going to make people angry,” she said.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, expectations were similarly high for Taddeo’s fiction debut.
Animal explores many of the same themes as Three Women. Indeed, it was directly inspired by material that didn’t make it into the first book, as well as by criticisms that the three eponymous women exemplified “absolute victimhood.” With Animal, Taddeo wanted to write about a woman who experiences trauma and reacts with the kind of “scorched-earth” approach women are not typically allowed. Taddeo wanted to put a woman on the page who is traumatized, as the women in Three Women were, but who reacts to that trauma with the mindset, “I’m going to do something about it, and I’m validated in doing something about it.” She wanted, in essence, to write a novel about female rage free from the shackles of “good behavior.” In this mission, Taddeo fails more than she succeeds.
The novel opens with bloodshed. Taddeo’s protagonist, Joan, sits at an expensive Italian restaurant with the married man she is in love with when the married man she has been sleeping with but does not love enters with a gun. He turns it on himself, triggering Joan’s flight from New York City to Los Angeles, where the novel unfolds. The story is told in the first person, with Joan regularly addressing a phantom “you,” an unknown audience that is less shrouded in mystery than Taddeo might have hoped. There are other transparent mysteries, too, questions that Taddeo writes as opaque but felt, to this reader, obvious.
What happened to Joan’s parents, whom she’s now carting, in plastic baggies, across the country? (Answer: something horrible that left scars.)
What happened between Joan and Vic that caused him to shoot himself in the head? (Answer: something horrible — albeit the kind of horrible you’d expect from a doomed affair, and the kind of horrible that, yes, leaves scars.)
What happened when Joan was 10 years old? (Answer: several horrible somethings, then scars.)
The question of geography — why Los Angeles? — is answered at the beginning: the only person Joan has left, a woman she had never met named Alice, lives in Los Angeles and has something Joan needs. Alice’s identity isn’t revealed until late in the novel, but astute readers will guess the reveal before it happens.
As these questions are raised and explored, Joan navigates her way through relationships with the humans in her immediate vicinity: neighbors, co-workers, people from her past, people from her future, and, of course, Alice. Her interactions with every single one of them are toxic, and, in more than one case, fatal.
To Taddeo’s credit, her protagonist does behave badly and she is full of rage. She flouts traditional societal expectations regularly, sleeping with men most women would consider off-limits, hurting innocent people and burning the world down around her. Unfortunately, Joan’s “bad” behavior feels exhibitionary, studied, and ultimately inauthentic. In the first chapter, Joan says,
“I can tell you a lot about sex with a man to whom you are not attracted. It becomes all about your own performance, your own body and how it looks on the outside, the way it moves above this man, who, for you, is only a spectator.”
Joan’s rebellions — against men, against other women, against society — feel similarly performative, as if she spent several hours rehearsing her lines before actually saying them. The problem is in the prose itself. Joan’s internal monologue reads like Taddeo sat down and thought, “How would an amoral maneater describe herself?” (Never mind that the question ignores the obvious: an amoral maneater would lie.) Consequently, Joan’s confessions feel less like illicit secrets and more like a badly scripted performance from a woman who wants to bad. “There were many paths my journey could take,” Joan says, “I didn’t think any of them would lead me to murder.” Of an old boyfriend who objectified a female actress, Joan comments, “I am still impressed that I didn’t kill him.” Of herself, Joan muses, “If someone asked me to describe myself in a single word, depraved is the one I would use.” The heavy-handed quality of lines like these don’t make Joan terrifying or subversive. They don’t even make her unlikeable — I would have liked unlikeable. Instead, they make Joan the embodiment of rage — but the sort of rage one associates with an angsty teenager intent on lashing out, rather than the sort belonging to an adult woman intent on “doing something about it.”
In a profile published in 2019, just before the publication of Three Women, Taddeo talked to an interviewer about how her personal life influenced her career. At one point, when she was still a fledgling journalist interested in writing about desire, a friend suggested she “sleep her way” across the country, using men as an on-ramp to professional success. Taddeo vetoed the idea. “Sex without the sort of deep connection, it’s not for me,” Taddeo told the interviewer. “When it’s not real, it feels silly at best.” And that, ironically, is a complete summation of why Animal fails. When Joan performs the role of “depraved woman,” it’s not real, and it feels silly.
Rating: 2 stars
I’d spent a lifetime not caring what women thought of me. But that was merely the lie I told myself to tell others. The truth was that I was afraid of women.
She said women were considered strong these days only if they didn’t talk about things they loved that didn’t love them, if they didn’t get hurt or allow themselves to be occasionally humiliated at their own hands, when, really, strength was being unashamed to want what you want.
One of the best things about childhood is the lack of choices.
When you are young and you see your father choose something, the thing that he chooses will be the thing that you want to be.
Only people who live their lives very routinely, who have never known abject grief, can love Saturdays and Sundays. For me there was a rickety lonesomeness to them. It always seemed everybody had escaped somewhere I hadn’t been invited to.
There is nothing in the world better than the past.
Wynter K Miller is an editor and writer in California.