Review: Lisa Taddeo’s ‘Ghost Lover’: Stories of ruined women

On the shelf

‘Ghost Lover: Stories’

By Lisa Taddeo
Avid Reader: 240 pages, $27

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Lisa Taddeo has a guy. Both her best-selling non-fiction project, Three Women, and her 2021 novel, Animal, explored the dangers and thrills, the violence, and the pain, of a certain shade of sexual desire. Her new story collection, Ghost Lover, is similarly populated by women who want to be desired above all, mostly by men, although more than that they want the women around them to be jealous of how much they are desired by men.

In the story American Girl, three women triangulate around a mediocre politician, all desperate for him, none of whom have much of themselves beyond their one pursuit. In Forty-Two, a self-proclaimed “cougar” of that age (though she hates the term) prepares to attend the wedding of a man she was trying to steal; In Beautiful People, a production assistant sleeps with an adorable movie star who cooks her osso buco and ends up cheating on her; In Maid Marian, a woman tries to understand her hatred of her older lover’s wife after his death. In Grace Magorian, Grace – “still single because she hadn’t had enough” – lies about her age and considers posting photos of other women on a dating app in hopes of finally finding love at 51.

These women think a lot about the food they eat, the clothes and shoes they wear. They do yoga and Pilates, take Ambien, Ativan and Klonopin, puke and starve. They think 37 is the age when most of us disappear. They often speak wantonly and unconvincingly of killing themselves or the men they love. They almost always have something tragic and violent in their past. The way they deal with each other is primarily determined by their compulsion to evaluate and compare.

Calling these women unlikable feels ridiculous: when and how will we ever get beyond that term? These women don’t care. If you’re skinny enough and hot enough, if you lie enough about the right things – your age, your orgasms, your wants and needs – no one has to like you to keep you, to give you gifts big enough that you can sell them and earn more than a teacher or restaurant worker could earn in a year.

These women sometimes have jobs and interests that go beyond men’s, but they are almost never relevant to the plot of the stories in this book. When a job matters, as in the cover story Ghost Lover, it is driven by the main character’s relationship with men. Devastated by a breakup and encouraged by an old friend she also sleeps with (“It felt like a soft iron inside you, something simple and graceful. The stupid pain of simple pole sex. You didn’t come”), Ari starts a business: a text message forwarding system. Women hire Ari and her army of stunning women — “You’ve always attracted women you could imagine him wanting” — to reply or not to text messages sent by her crush. The business becomes very successful, but Ari still feels unhappy because the man she still wants still doesn’t want her back.

"ghost lover" by Lisa Taddeo

(Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster)

This runs like a red thread through the collection: wanting and not being wanted, not being wanted and feeling angry – angry at the world and other women, sometimes at men, but above all at yourself. In “American Girl”, the In the rare story where our main character gets the man she wants, she’s makeshift, spoiled and a little sad: “There weren’t any problems. He said I love you with every part of me. Nothing he said was ever specific or realistic. She wanted him more than he wanted her. But there were no other problems.”

The two stories centered around women’s friendships, “A Suburban Weekend” and “Air Supply,” seem at first glance to be rather the same – fixated on who gets looked at first, whose particular style is more appealing each and every single day, um a Mexican bar or pool at a country club. But these stories slowly evolve into other, deeper concerns: a young girl’s grief, a new mother’s confidence in the face of impossible uncertainty and fear.

Time goes by and the stakes of these women’s desires and misdeeds get higher, but you get the feeling that the characters will remain largely the same. “We would be twenty-four and twenty-six and thirty. We’d leave an acquaintance’s funeral – heroin, Cape Cod – and the dead boy’s father would turn to look at us, our bums. We still have it, Sara would say. I laughed out loud because I was thinking the exact same thing.”

All of this feels exactly how Taddeo intended. Books and stories are often based on the idea that we are there to observe people in a process of transformation, but often people don’t change at all. People (and societies and systems) often remain the same. Taddeo conveys the tragedy of this stagnation: chaotic, increasingly destructive, often very sad. These are women so entrenched in societal expectations, the ghosts of their own tragedies and self-loathing that they will likely never fully escape.

There’s a straight-forward and somehow pleasing flatness to that sameness and sense of being stuck, as if Taddeo’s aim is not to give us a fully fleshed out persona, but instead a single sharp and tearing chunk. You may not know anyone like these women, but chances are every woman you know has at least a little bit of them in them.

“Ghost Lover” feels like it was made to be provocative – and it is provocative. It stings and pokes you with its relentless focus on the many ways inhabiting a certain type of female body can ruin a life. But as stagnation spreads, the edges become dull. While Animal has had the time and space to bring its devastating narrative home, each new story here seems to subvert its predecessors.

This is not meant to diminish their moments of power; Sentences gain confidence and clarity because they never have to search for what else these characters or their stories might contain. Yet they are too much of a species to pierce as deeply as they might have if they had been allowed to delve a little deeper into what it is to be alive.

Strong is a critic and novelist. Her forthcoming novel is called Flight. Review: Lisa Taddeo’s ‘Ghost Lover’: Stories of ruined women

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