What Women Want by Maxine Mei-Fung Chung review – the depths of desire

Sigmund Freud famously asked “What does a woman want?” and the question has been posed repeatedly across every medium ever since. Now Maxine Mei-Fung Chung re-examines it in the context of 21st-century women’s lives in her new book, a distillation of 15 years’ work as a psychotherapist.

Memoirs lifting the lid on the therapeutic process from the analyst’s perspective have become popular in recent years, with Lori Gottlieb’s Maybe You Should Talk to Someone and Philippa Perry’s Couch Fiction the outstanding examples, demystifying with candour and humour a profession that is still regarded with suspicion by some, humanising the perception of the therapist and providing a useful counterpoint to more familiar narratives of mental illness written by those on the couch. What Women Want is firmly in this tradition, but it is most obviously aimed at the readership that flocked to Lisa Taddeo’s 2019 hit Three Women. Where Taddeo approached her subjects as an investigative journalist, embedding and living alongside them for extended periods, Chung’s studies are more analytical, informed by the necessary boundaries imposed by her role and her professional detachment – although, as she explores throughout the book, cool objectivity is not always possible or desirable in a therapist.

Chung presents significant episodes from her patients’ lives as if they are scenes from a novel

One of the criticisms frequently levelled at Taddeo’s book was that her subjects hardly represented a spectrum of female experience: all were white and predominantly straight; two of the three were Catholic. Chung, who is British-born Chinese and has won awards for her work supporting people from minority communities, redresses this imbalance in her choices; she uses seven case studies covering a range of ages, ethnicities and orientations, “a collection of true, intersectional stories that examine women’s lives and their relationships with desire”. This is not exclusively sexual desire: Marianna is desperate for motherhood; Ruth wants to take back control of a body ravaged by eating disorders; Tia longs to accept and unite both sides of her dual racial heritage; Beverly wants to make sense of her son’s suicide. A common thread is that all the women – including herself – were conditioned from an early age to mute or tamp down their own desires and needs. The reasons differ, but the result is the same: girls learn, often from their parents, that their wants are unimportant. Sometimes they are considered outright repellent, as in the case of Terri, who has spent years denying her attraction to women after her mother called her “disgusting”.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the book is the way Chung portrays the therapist-patient relationship as a two-way connection, sometimes described as a “dance”. “The popular view of a psychotherapist is that of a silent, implacable listener. A blank-screen human who is unaffected by discourse, challenge, similar life experiences and, from time to time, even the most shocking revelations,” she writes. But modern therapy is far more relational, and nowhere is this clearer than in her conversations with Tia, who specifically sought a therapist of colour who could identify with her experiences, and Beverly, who needed her therapist to be a mother. Chung writes frankly about the constant adjustments she has to make in the consulting room as she gauges the appropriate balance between disclosure and professional distance. There is a moving moment when Tia asks Chung about her parents and concludes: “So you’re an outsider too?” “A sudden crackling aliveness in the room,” writes Chung. “We are two women connected by a small moment of sharing.”

Chung presents significant episodes from her patients’ lives as if they are scenes from a novel (she is also the author of a thriller, The Eighth Girl). While this makes dramatic sense and is undoubtedly influenced by Three Women, she has an unfortunate tendency to veer into somewhat purple prose in these passages, and the book would have benefited from a rigorous editor to rein in the excesses.

But the conversations begun through the courage and determination of these women – all of whom have given their consent to the inclusion of their stories – make a valuable contribution to a wider debate about how women are permitted to own and express their desires in a patriarchal culture that still prefers us quiet and non-disruptive. “Exploring What Women Want is an ongoing inquiry for all of us,” Chung writes. “And one of the great gifts in beginning these conversation is that they transcend the question from what do women want? to the premise that women want. Period.”

What Women Want: Conversations on Desire, Power, Love and Growth by Maxine Mei-Fung Chung is published by Hutchinson-Heinemann (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply