Review: Tampa by Alissa Nutting

UK book cover Tampa by Alissa Nutting

I can’t even explain how much I hate that cover. The title is innocuous enough that you could probably read it on a train without causing the old lady across from you to mutter and fiddle with her rosary (a euphemism that would not actually have been out of place in Tampa, actually), but the cover? Not so much. I’ve nevr felt so self-conscious on public transport in my life.

Plot summary: Celeste Price is an eighth-grade English teacher in suburban Tampa. She
is attractive. She drives a red Corvette. Her husband, Ford, is rich,
square-jawed and devoted to her. But Celeste has a secret. She has a
singular sexual obsession – fourteen-year-old boys. It is a craving she
pursues with sociopathic meticulousness and forethought.  

I don’t actually have strong feelings about this book – a lot of reviews I’ve read have either stated how repetetive and boring it is, or that it was too annoyingly sexual. I wouldn’t say I agree with either of those. I mean, yes, obviously Tampa is almost constant sex, but you probably grasped that from the cover. For me, the point of the book is as a character study of Celeste Price, the teacher who tries to seduce her barely teenage students.

She’s a horrible person. Leaving aside the sex thing for now, Celeste does a pretty horrific (non-sexual) thing towards the end of the book and then suffers no remorse other than the effect to her sex-life. It wasn’t that she’s evil, she actually just didn’t understand why it was so horrendously immoral. What shocked me the most was the emotional manipulation of the boys she seduced, purposefully leading them to believe that they were a committed and stable couple. Again though, her psychopathic tendencies didn’t allow her to empathise with them and understand the damage she was doing. I’m not making excuses for her and I certainly don’t condone it, but I’ve come across this before.

I’m just going to slip in here that my
day-job involves rehabilitating sex offenders recently released into the
community, so I admit my views may be slightly skewed. However, because of this I know just how unrealistic Tampa is. There’s just no way somebody acting as creepy as Celeste would get away with everything she did. I mean, she wasn’t exactly subtle. A first-year teacher who stalks students at their homes? I don’t think so.

Tampa didn’t shock me although it tried very hard to do so. It’s obviously the primary purpose of Tampa, but a shocking book doesn’t necessarily make a good one. There have been a lot of discussions lately about whether readers would have found Celeste more disgusting if she was a male teacher abusing students, but I don’t agree. For me, the stereotypical (and therefore I know not always correct) image of women is of a caring, nurturing maternal figure so when they abuse a trusted position of authority, it seems more shocking not less. It’s like we almost expect it of men, thanks to the mainstream media and tabloids*.

That said, something really made me care about here. I never liked her; I actually spent most of the book wanting to smack her over the head with a shovel, but I did have to Google the ending before I actually let myself read it. I just had to know!

So I liked the plot, the sex didn’t shock me and I cared about the main character. The only thing that bothered me is the writing, which is just… odd. The prose is fine and it flows reasonably well but every so often the imagery used made it ‘clunk’ in my head. We’re talking about Celeste picturing giant penises crashing through the windscreen of the car, etc. Maybe it was supposed to contribute to the shock factor or something, but it just stopped me from taking the book seriously.

To conclude, Tampa was… fine. I enjoyed reading it and I cared enough to Google the ending, but it’s not something I think I’ll need to read again. It’s obviously trying to be shocking, but it’s not exactly subtle about it.

* Disclaimer: I absolutely do not believe that all men are rapists-in-waiting, just that it’s what several sources would have us believe.

Visit Alissa Nutting’s website here or find her on Twitter.

Comments

  1. I actually kind of love the cover. I'd probably be constantly embarrassed by it in public, but it's audacious enough that I was wildly interested in the book…until I heard what the book was about. From the reviews I've heard, I think I'd probably fall somewhere near you, not shocked, perhaps enjoying it for the most part but eh, maybe I'll get it from the library a few months from now.

  2. This was so well written and I admire Alissa Nutting and her fantastic creative mind. She drags me into her world and holds me there until she's done with me.
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  3. karin says:

    this book sounds really interesting

  4. The novel goes into many Noir themes and events before it wraps up and Celeste can certainly be seen as a femmes fatale. But this novel feels much more contemporary and relevant than something like The Maltese Falcon, with a ripped-from-the-tabloid-headlines plot, sexually frank descriptions, and a vocally selfish protagonist. It contains many profound insights, a captivating narrator and many dark, disturbing truths.

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