This was a strange and unexpected read for me. Not something I would generally have chosen on my own, it was recommended by a friend during a game night. We were discussing deviant sexual practices and the double-standards that can arise between men and women when allegations of sexual abuse are made (as one does), and Tampa was brought up. At the end of the evening I asked to borrow it, and here we are.
Tampa follows Celeste Price, a middle school teacher in Tampa, as she preys on fourteen-year-old boys to satisfy her intense sexual desires. This was not a comfortable read. Celeste is a well-constructed character who finds it hard to think of things other than slaking her lust. Every action she takes she does with that in mind. She constantly manipulates everyone around her, using her beauty and her body as currency to keep the suspicions of others at bay.
All secondary characters are seen through Celeste’s rather biased eye. Her husband, who disgusts her. Janet, who disgusts her. Buck, who disgusts her. Jack and Boyd, the only ones she finds appealing in any way, are purely sexual objects to her and it shows. She is dismissive of other adults as to her they’ve passed their prime long ago, but she certainly doesn’t consider Jack or Boyd to be equals either. This narcissistic view, while interesting, does at times make things rather repetitive.
While at times I found it hard to believe that nobody suspected Celeste’s true actions or intentions, I have to admit that was culturally accurate. We are less likely to suspect the young and beautiful, especially if they’re women. Her deft manipulations of Ford (her husband) played right into his stereotypical view of women as mercurial creatures of mystery designed to plague men with frustration. Nobody tried to delve further into Celeste’s life because they believed so deeply that there was nothing there worth finding.
Tampa is undeniably a well-written novel. The narrative is carefully constructed with sometimes gorgeous turns of phrase coming out of nowhere. That didn’t lessen my discomfort as scenes of abuse took place between Celeste and her students. They’re written in a graphic way that I would term erotica if the subject matter wasn’t so disturbing. I felt vaguely sick the entire time I was reading though I did fly through the book in one sitting.
It is a mark of Alissa Nutting’s skill as a writer that I would recommend this book both despite and because of its subject matter. It’s not an easy thing to read about, but its something that is certainly worth thinking about more in depth. Will the content disturb you? Almost certainly. Will it spark an important discussion about male survivors of sexual violence and female perpetrators? I hope so.
There is more I could say, but for now I will sign off. Have you read Tampa? Do you have any books to recommend with strange or difficult subject matter? Let me know in the comments below!