I’M CERTAIN THAT many people have asked themselves what it would be like to be a beautiful woman. If the asker is a beautiful woman, then I suspect she still has questions, such as “what would it be like to be an even more beautiful woman?” More than a decade ago, in New York magazine, Lisa Taddeo surveyed the taxonomy of women at bottle-service clubs, all of whom are beautiful, but some of whom are more beautiful than others. The pyramid of power at those clubs is organized in those terms: at the top are models, who are followed by “near-models who have not made it yet,” who are followed by the bar’s bottle girls, who are followed by the clubbing girls who “aren’t beautiful but they’re young enough and pretty enough.” The rewards of scaling the beauty pyramid, Taddeo gradually made clear, include some tangible ones, like paid airfare to locales with more bottle-service clubs (for those who are “pretty enough,” the locales get fancier). Most of all, though, what the most beautiful women are awarded, by men and by each other, is the imprecise prize of being hotter than someone else. At the top of the pyramid is the satisfaction of winning. But during the climb, of course, there is also the fear of losing.

Women’s ambivalent relationship to beauty is the primary subject of Taddeo’s third book-length work, Ghost Lover, a collection of short stories that insist that beauty matters, regardless of what people say to women about worrying about more serious things. Animal (2021), Taddeo’s first novel, was narrated by a 39-year-old woman so hot that she could wear the same unwashed white dress, one un–air-conditioned Los Angeles afternoon after the other, and still be reliably fuckable to just about every man she met. In Ghost Lover, many of the women characters would kill to have a beauty so effortless. Instead, they spend their time attempting to approximate it. “You are not hot,” writes the narrator of the collection’s title story, chastising herself and anyone else who has ever wondered why they don’t wake up as irresistible as the protagonist of Animal. We meet her in line for a sandwich, unable to choose one of the house creations because each is “fattening” (“If only people knew how much work went into your weight”). The pretty girl next to her, by right of “a blind providence afforded her at birth,” has a boyfriend at hand to do the things women are raised not to know how to do, on the implicit assumption that they will ask a man to do them. The narrator’s screen door is broken, and “there is no one you can ask to fix this.”

Taddeo’s stories often resemble the equally unforgettable stories of Lucia Berlin, especially in the airtightness of the sentences, which quickly and astutely draw women on the page. Often, these women happen to be extraordinary observers of others, as well as beauties others like to observe. (Berlin, who looked like Elizabeth Taylor, often wrote autobiographically.) Yet Taddeo departs from her predecessor in that Taddeo’s characters actually talk to readers about their own gorgeousness. In Berlin’s 1992 story “So Long,” a woman tells us that her lover has shown up at her New York apartment with “roses, a bottle of brandy and four tickets to Acapulco,” asking her to leave her husband and take her two kids along. We assume that such a woman must be very beautiful. In a Taddeo story, we would not have to assume it, because the woman would simply announce it. And if she lacked the looks — and the man, and the plane tickets — she’d announce that too, mournfully, angrily, desperately. It is unfair, she would tell us, that some people get to go to Acapulco with their lovers while others don’t.

For Taddeo’s characters, a lack of beauty causes real suffering that cannot be imagined away by reminders that beauty standards are contingent patriarchal fictions. Sometimes, the suffering lies in the indignity of trying too hard, and of paying too high a price, for the male attention that women with nicer faces receive freely. In one story, a woman with “such a big nose for a girl” inadvertently, but quite literally, sells her most valuable possession in exchange for one night of sex with a man, an actor whose hotness “radiated like a space heater.” Other times, the suffering comes in the form of a broken screen door and the lamentable singleness of which the unfixed door is a symbol. The narrator of the title story loves a man who remarks to her, “I can’t even imagine us, you know, being intimate.” She receives this news poorly — all the more so when the man sends her an invitation to his wedding (to someone “honey-haired”). Frustrated and devastated by the inequity of beauty (a vision board titled “Become More Beautiful” has failed to yield results), she comes up with her own plans to sabotage the union and settle the score. This, to her, is sensical and just. Suffering lies chiefly in the relentlessness of living with perceived injustice, of living adjacent to an ease that could have been yours if you were luckier, prettier.

Taddeo’s women want to be those lucky people, and without judgment she lets them want what they want. It does not matter really if what her characters want is what they’ve been told they should want, ever since they saw their mothers want it, ever since they noted that the crush who told them that beauty doesn’t matter only dated beautiful women. By now, a desire is just a desire.

¤

The allure of beauty is that, if we had it, we also “could have had anything,” writes Chloé Cooper-Jones in her 2022 memoir Easy Beauty. The idea, she continues, is both “seductive and unsound.” One of Taddeo’s protagonists is a 51-year-old woman named Grace, who, if she were beautiful, would want a boyfriend. Specifically, she wants a particular man on a Raya-like dating website, whose profile describes how dreamy life would be with him:

We aren’t homesteaders, but in the winter we can things, you and I, and we don’t tell anyone, which is how to maintain goodness. […] You heat our cider and Calvados while I clean the artichokes and later, we eat them, our faces glazed in the oil of the vegetable. I ask you to say Plum pudding, again and again and again and again. And again.

The man is “searching for the best woman in the world,” a phrase the narrator reads without irony. The man, of course, is probably a bot. The life we think we might purchase with beauty is not really as we dream it to be. If the ungorgeous narrators in Taddeo’s stories could read the stories told by gorgeous women, they might see that those women have problems too, because they are people, and specifically because they are women. In one story, a hot young woman named Molly is marrying a man who leaves used tissues on her floor (“you could measure how much someone cared for you by whether or not you could imagine them leaving snot on your floor”). More to the point, the man is also fucking someone else because, “at the end of the day, you can be twenty-six and it doesn’t matter. There’s someone out there who’s gonna be eighteen, with a smaller vagina.” Anyway, Molly figures, “nothing lasts forever” — she expects to get offed in middle age by breast cancer. In a subsequent story, an Italian-born beauty is already dead, narrating the story while continuing to haunt her old kitchen. I won’t spoil what she sees her widowed husband doing, but suffice to say he is not gazing loyally at a photo of her gorgeousness. Men, in Taddeo’s stories, are always men.

Still, would the less-hot women really be soothed if they could see into the stories that adjoin their own, to know that even hot girls sometimes are sad, to know that everyone ends up the same: cheated on, cancerous, dead? Part of the magic of Taddeo’s stories is that they are not prescriptively moralizing. Taddeo recognizes that beauty is a relevant social fact, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. This is a comfort: neither her characters nor her readers are chided as shallow and silly for wanting to be so pretty that hot men ask you to say “plum pudding” again and again — or, for that matter, respond to your dating-app messages, to your requests to be looked at and loved. As a very attractive man tells a less attractive woman in the third story in Taddeo’s collection, “Beautiful People,” “It’s not fair […] until it’s still not fair, but then you’re the one benefiting from the unfairness.” If there is an ethical viewpoint here, it’s not that women should shut up about beauty but that there has to be some way of acknowledging its deliciousness while resisting the impulse to think about it in every sandwich line until you are dead. The fantasy of hotness is that, having prized it in youth, you can enter old age without missing it horribly. The reality of hotness, in Taddeo’s stories, is that the beauty we cherish in ourselves at 18 is the beauty we lovelessly sweat after decades later. The most sobering of her stories are those narrated by women who, having once easily possessed beauty, are later possessed by the unease of its absence.

“You know the type, until you become one,” says the 42-year-old narrator of a story called “Forty-Two.” The woman attends barre class and is a size four in Lululemon leggings. She is also miserably fucking someone else’s husband-to-be. “She was stork-thin; that was all she had these days,” writes Taddeo of a 46-year-old actress who, in another story, is hosting a party for a man she loves. When he uses the occasion to propose to someone younger (and heavier) than her, the actress drowns herself — not, it seems, because the man is so spectacular that living without him would be an impossible task, but because winning the game she has always played, the never-ending pyramid scheme of hotness, has become an impossible task. The actress has no other games to play, so into her swimming pool she goes, “chiffon dress riding up to bare her bony rear.” (The man, for the record, is a politician who chooses his bride because “she would be like a dog, something friendly he could always count on.”)

¤

Parents tend to have one of two fantasies: that their children will get what they wanted, or that their children will learn to want something else. For that reason, an awful lot of art, from the HBO show Girls to the Bible, climaxes with a baby to whom the world might deliver something better — or, even more wonderfully, who might demand something better from the world. But while some of Taddeo’s women characters put their hopes in children, she is much too wild a writer to see parenthood as salvation. Her novel Animal ends with a baby who is half-real, half-fantasy. In her short stories, Taddeo is likewise unwilling to offer too much relief in the form of motherhood. It’s that absence of relief — that steady, exhausting pressure of women desiring what is not in their power to have — that would lead me to give Taddeo’s work to my own daughter: reading her stories is like looking hard and long at a photo of yourself and realizing that the hair color you thought was a cool blonde actually looks, in the sun, unflatteringly green. The world of these tales is so photorealistic that it’s impossible to gaze into it and not want to fix it.

There’s a passage in Cooper-Jones’s memoir about a man she meets who swears he can’t get hard for a woman who isn’t model-beautiful. “It’s a curse,” he tells her. “I’d like to be able to date more women. But you cannot control such things.” “Can’t you?” Cooper-Jones replies. If you saw a photo of your green hair in the sun, you’d probably get some shampoo, a purifying one. If you saw the relentlessness of your own obsession with your rating on a 1–10 scale, and all for the approval of men like the one Cooper-Jones addresses, and all at the expense of the younger women looking around, trying to discern what they should want, then you too might desire purification.

But the seesaw of a Taddeo story, which is the seesaw of womanhood, is that you might still want to look like the stunners she writes about. “Beautiful women loved the stories of other beautiful women,” muses one beauty in the story “Padua, 1966.” “They felt they could learn from them.” Yet if Taddeo has her characters learn anything — maybe that every bottle-service girl is replaceable, by the men paying her way both on and off the clock; that every one of them is aging — they rarely want to use this knowledge. “I think about how many tiny competitions I’ve engaged in over the years [with other women],” reflects one beauty, in one of the finest stories in Ghost Lover. “It all feels like a waste of time,” she continues, “and yet, if I were back there again, knowing what I know now, I don’t think I’d do it any differently.”

¤

Elizabeth Barber is a journalist based in Iowa.