In Alissa Nutting’s novel Tampa, Celeste Price, a smoldering 26-year-old middle-school teacher in Florida, unrepentantly recounts her elaborate and sociopathically determined seduction of a 14-year-old student.
Celeste has chosen and lured the charmingly modest Jack Patrick into her web. Jack is enthralled and in awe of his eighth-grade teacher, and, most importantly, willing to accept Celeste’s terms for a secret relationship—car rides after dark, rendezvous at Jack’s house while his single father works the late shift, and body-slamming erotic encounters in Celeste’s empty classroom. In slaking her sexual thirst, Celeste Price is remorseless and deviously free of hesitation, a monstress of pure motivation. She deceives everyone, is close to no one, and cares little for anything but her pleasure.
Tampa is a sexually explicit, virtuosically satirical, American Psycho–esque rendering of a monstrously misplaced but undeterrable desire. Laced with black humor and crackling sexualized prose, Alissa Nutting’s Tampa is a grand, seriocomic examination of the want behind student / teacher affairs and a scorching literary debut.
Alissa Nutting’s début novel Tampa made me feel incredibly uncomfortable. Uncomfortable the point of involuntarily cringing, and having to put the book aside for a few hours in order to return to feeling normal again. Perhaps fortunately I read the Kindle version, as the UK cover of the book would likely have made everyone around me just as uncomfortable as I was.
Celeste Price is 26, unnaturally beautiful by her own estimations, a middle-school teacher, and unflinchingly terrifying. She is the archetypal unreliable narrator, her own overwhelming desire for young boys creeping into the main focus of every moment of her life, with very last sentence of the novel betraying the possibility that her imagination and her reality might not exactly line up. Celeste is married to Ford, a 31-year-old police officer. She concedes that a 31-year-old husband is not particularly old for a woman in her mid-twenties, but points out that “31 is roughly 17 years past my window of sexual interest”.
The reasons that Celeste is a truly scary character go further than just her compulsion towards 14-year-old boys. On more than one occasion she imagines young boys killing her husband. She barely conceals her distaste for almost everyone around her, at one point casually saying “Aren’t people revolting in general?” She admits, in a semblance of selflessness, that one of her main motives for not having children is to avoid forcing ‘that transgression’ upon herself if she had a son. When she thinks that she might go to prison, it is the orange jumpsuits and unappealing food that worry her the most. Even the most basic sense of guilt over what she is doing is constantly missing, and she is so sure that she is doing nothing wrong that she interprets the scent of mint on a young boy’s breath as explicit consent.
As discomforting and disturbing as it may be, Tampa is also peppered with moments of dark humour. When a fellow teacher asks for a lift home, Celeste struggles to move her gym bag from the passenger seat without revealing the sex toy that she carries everywhere with her. She considers asking a 14-year-old to start using anti-ageing treatments, and complains that he acts in a way she considers juvenile. When she is placed under house arrest and a group of women protest outside her house, she sarcastically praises them for bringing their children along to ‘practice the valuable life skill of standing on the side of the road with indignation’.
This book won’t be for everyone, and trying to explain why you’re reading a book that is essentially about paedophilia could be tricky. Yet, anyone who might think that Tampa is glamourising, romanticising or mitigating Celeste’s molestation of under-age boys is missing the point entirely: the character that Nutting has created is pathetic, disgusting, and grotesque in her selfishness. With the exception of a few moments where a reader might feel something for Celeste bordering on sympathy, she remains predatory and manipulative throughout the novel.