‘Tampa’ by Alissa Nutting

Tampa
Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber and Faber; 272 pages; 2013.

I’ve read a lot of outrageous books in my time, but Alice Nutting’s Tampa is right up there with the best of them. (The title refers to the Florida suburb in which it is set, but it could also be a play on words, because the main character does “tamper” with people she shouldn’t.)

It’s confronting, disturbing and, well, icky, but there’s something about this novel which had me reading it at break-neck pace — I raced through it in just a day or two — and then wished I’d not galloped to the ending so quickly.

Taboo content

To be perfectly frank, this novel isn’t for everyone. Many will be put off by the subject matter and the explicit sex (page one opens with a masturbation scene, just to set the mood for the rest of the book). And that’s understandable — not everyone wants to read about a female teacher grooming young male students for her sexual pleasure.

But what makes this novel such a riveting read despite the unpalatable concept at its heart is the voice of the narrator, which is wondrous in its sheer bravado, wickedness, narcissism and wit. This is the voice of a 26-year-old woman who knows that what she is doing is illegal but doesn’t give two hoots about anything other than feeding her own insatiable appetite for 14-year-old boys.

I’ve not read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita but I rather suspect Celeste Price, eighth grade English teacher, with her blond hair, red corvette, ultra-handsome husband and unusual sexual obsessions, might give Humbert Humbert a run for his money.

Indeed, it’s hard to fathom a more loathsome character in fiction, but I was completely drawn in by Celeste in a disturbing I-don’t-wish-to-be-complicit-but-can’t-help-it kind of way. I found myself hanging on to every word she said, and even though I became more and more shocked by her outrageous behaviour — and the sheer kinkiness of her relationship with student Jack Patrick — I was kind of willing her on and hoping she’d get away with it — which is an unusual position to be in as a reader, particularly when you know that the narrator is not only abhorrent and immoral, her actions could have long-lasting and damaging psychological impacts on her victims.

Unanswered questions

Perhaps the greatest strength of Nutting’s titillating, often perverse, novel is the questions it throws up. If Celeste is every teenage boy’s fantasy, what’s so wrong about her hitting on them? Where are the lines drawn between teacher and pupil? If Celeste was not beautiful, would she get away with this kind of behaviour? Is her marriage to Ford, a policeman who works night shift, to blame?

Of course the storyline is preposterous — or is it?  We certainly know from news stories and the like that there are plenty of men out there who prey on teenage girls, but are there women, in the real world, preying on young teenage boys?

Tampa brings to mind Bonnie Nadzam’s Lamb, which features an equally perverse and deviant character — a man who develops an unhealthy relationship with a young girl — but is far more explicit and confronting, perhaps because it places us firmly in the head of the perpetrator.

While I would not describe this as a comfortable read, it’s certainly attention grabbing, fascinating and horrifying in equal measure, the literary equivalent of a car crash, and yet it’s one of the most entertaining novels I’ve read all year.

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10 thoughts on “‘Tampa’ by Alissa Nutting

  1. I reviewed this novel today too and agree with almost every one of your points. I think the car crash analogy is just about the perfect way of describing the novel.
    I did question a few times whether the explicitness was necessary. With sex scene after sex scene I wondered if Nutting was trying to be controversial but then without these scenes I don’t think Celeste’s character would be anywhere near as memorable and have such a strong impact as she does.
    Really glad to have found your review :).

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  2. Snap! I’ve just reviewed this one too! I also thought it was one of the most entertaining reads of the year and admired the way she wasn’t afraid to write about anything. It has been a couple of months since I read it and I’ve found it has grown on me with time. It is one of those rare books that gets better the more you think about/analyse it.

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  3. Snap indeed. I read this back in September and you are right — it does grow better with time. I think this one will be going on my Top 10 reads of the year. It certainly throws up a lot of questions — for instance, I do wonder how beautiful Celeste really was?

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  4. Thanks for your comment, Plasticrosaries. Let’s face it, the book is practically pornographic, but without the sex it just wouldn’t work — as you point out you need to see what makes Celeste tick and her character wouldn’t be as memorable without it. I think the book is worth reading because it makes us question our preconceptions about pedophilia — ie. that it’s largely something that only afflicts males.
    Here’s a link to your review, in case anyone else would like to read it: http://plasticrosaries.com/review-tampa-alissa-nutting/

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  5. Thanks again – it’s the questioning which some critics have skipped – automatically damning it to pornographic and sensationalist without considering why it’s like this. Thanks for sharing my thought too!

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  6. It’s so entertaining that one doesn’t realise for a long time how complicit the author is making the reader in siding with the predator/’heroine’! I loved it – really made me think a lot about where one draws the line (and why there have to be lines), and it was superbly funny while doing it.

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  7. Ah yes, it’s hugely funny. I got quite a few laughs out of this book.
    (Thanks for your comment, by the way. It was stuck in my spam folder, hence the reason it didn’t get published straight away.)

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  8. I think the real genius of the book is that it leads you to ask questions like that. Does it matter how beautiful she is? If a man was having sex with teenagers no-one would be asking how handsome he was. It would simply be wrong. It’s such a clever book and it made my top 10.

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