In all honesty, I was originally drawn to Tampa for its cover art. I know, I know, I’m not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but it’s just so eye-catching! An extreme close-up of the button hole on a light pink dress shirt, that at a glance looks like a much dirtier image. I give it 11/10, and I hope the cover designer got a big raise once it went to print.
Once I drew my eyes away from the front cover, I had a look at the blurbs. They say Tampa has a “remorseless protagonist”, a “female Humbert” – Irvine Welsh called it “a provocative look at a taboo subject”, for crying out loud. Clearly, this book contains something intended to twist our guts.
If the Humbert allusion didn’t tip you off, here’s an early trigger warning (for both Tampa and this review): it’s a book about predatory sexual abuse, grooming, and statutory rape. Please be careful in considering whether to read on.
Why Alissa Nutting chose such a dark and dire subject for her debut novel, I’ll never know. She has said that she was inspired by Debra Lafave, a teacher (“coincidentally” from Tampa, FL) who was charged with raping one of her students in 2013. Nutting actually went to school with her, and seeing her old classmate charged with such a heinous crime got her creative gears rolling.
The story of Tampa doesn’t stray too far from what you’d expect, based on what I’ve told you so far. Celeste Price is a middle-school teacher who obsessively grooms and molests her fourteen-year-old male students. She’s unhappily married to an alcoholic police officer, staying with him for his family’s wealth and the convenient cover for her perversions that the marriage provides.
Celeste isn’t so much a character as she is predatory sexual desire manifest. She is very self-possessed and self-determined. She doesn’t stumble upon a strange state of arousal in the presence of a particular student one day and fall down a lust-filled rabbit hole. She knows, and has always known, exactly what she wants, and she makes detailed and devious plans to get it. She studied teaching and took on the middle-school teaching job with the explicit intention of finding vulnerable fourteen-year-old boys she could exploit.
Yes, fourteen-year-old boys – not thirteen, not fifteen, only fourteen. She is a seduction-preferential hebephile (yes, I had to google the terminology and typology, and yes, I have screwed up my search algorithms and probably put myself on a watch-list somewhere).
In my mind, besides the nature of their paraphilia, Celeste is nothing like Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert. In Tampa, she doesn’t entreat the reader to understand her or sympathise with her, as Humbert did. She actually has no interest at all in what anyone – real or fictional – thinks of her or knows about her, as long as it doesn’t affect her ability to keep doing what she wants (grooming and abusing boys). Of course, she’ll stop at nothing to keep her desires and crimes a secret, but purely because that’s the only way she can keep indulging in them.
I’d imagine that a lot of readers have abandoned Tampa in the first chapter. Nutting gives you nothing to endear you to Celeste, she doesn’t even give you a chance to warm up to the idea of a hebephile teacher before smacking you in the face with Celeste’s sick fantasies. It’s full throttle, right from the outset.
In fact, some bookstores have declined to stock Tampa due to its explicit depictions of child sexual abuse. I’m not sure keeping it off the shelves is the right way to go, but it definitely should come with some kind of warning for potential readers. It’s very, very uncomfortable reading – especially as it comes to a sickeningly inevitable conclusion.
I struggled to understand the “point” of Tampa, but reading it was an interesting intellectual exercise all the same, analysing my own visceral reactions to it. Proceed with caution. (Of course, if you’re anything like me, such a warning will only make you want to read it more – godspeed, but be careful!)
My favourite Amazon reviews of Tampa:
- “Imagine thanking your husband in the acknowledgements of this book, lol.” – Sarah M
- “Why is this trash named after my city? You could literally call it anything else.” – Amazon Customer
- “Do you have a life? Then don’t bother wasting it on this book. You’ll literally hate the fact you took time out of your life to read this.” – Haven
- “The author doesn’t seem to have gotten out of bed to write this, let alone explored her subject. She’s not Nabokov, she’s not Nin, she’s not even Judy Blume. Simply contrived rubbish that I wouldn’t spit my gum into. She’s wasted her time, yours, and probably her husband’s with this book… If it doesn’t ruin her career, she can always write for social media where everything is as terse and forgettable as this book.” – Go On Then