Tampa tells the monumentally sordid tale of Celeste Price, a beautiful 26-year-old high school teacher who has a singular sexual obsession for 14-year-old boys.
Inspired by the real-life story of Debra Lafave (who was “too pretty for prison”), Alissa Nutting has created a starkly vulgar but nevertheless fascinating novel. Celeste Price is a monster – predatory, cold and calculating. The first person narrative never tries to imbue sympathy in the reader, as she tells with fevered detail her relentless obsession with, pursuit of, and subsequent affairs with a 14-year-old student.
The novel is written with deliberately crass detail of her sexual exploits, lurid descriptions of her fantasies and later her actual activities, and though the protagonist is completely behind her own actions, the reader never sees her as anything except the sociopathic manipulator she is.
Am I writing harshly of her character? Yes – I despised her. But the novel itself is something more than its villainous protagonist. Alissa Nutting’s writing style is brash and confident, and although it’s the sort of word that’s often used to justify exploitation of its subject matter, she’s taken the approach with Tampa that you want to call “brave.” It’s also very funny in parts, in ways that you feel bad for laughing at.
It eviscerates the double standard that so often pervades the reporting of such trials, that any teenage boy who gets it on with their hot female teacher is lucky, and not a victim of statutory rape. While it can’t be denied that the student Celeste has the affair with is willing, it’s as equally undeniable that she took a predatory approach to him. Nutting never states it, but the thought of “how different would this be if Celeste was male?” is present at the forefront of every chapter.
Tampa is a rude and crude novel that knows exactly what it’s doing. Nutting wastes no time setting up Celeste’s predilections, and doesn’t shy away from any of the details. The novel is centred on some pretty reprehensible content (even if one can forgive the sexual preying on vulnerable teens, Celeste’s prose is pornographically clinical in its level of detail) but it never once suggests there’s anything ok with its main character.
I would have liked a few more genuine characters – Celeste is detailed clearly, but all the characters she encounters are merely functional – although this makes sense completely when considering how Celeste views the world and the people she’s encountered, and she’s nothing if not self-obsessed.
This is a novel that will offend a great many (and according to the news, already has been) but for those who can handle a black comedy with a lot to say, wrapped in a shroud of sleazy trash, and predicated on a truly awful person – it’s a great read. The writing actually gets better and better as the book goes on.
It’s not comfortable, but it’s immensely readable. Just maybe not in public – this book is definitely NSFW, but well worth it.