Ghost Lover by Lisa Taddeo review – in the company of men

The Three Women author once again explores female desire and sexual power dynamics in a collection of stories that often feel shockingly true

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.

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