Review: Tampa by Alyssa Nutting

17292511Tampa by Alissa Nutting
Final Verdict: 3.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 48

Tampa is the much-talked about, widely reviled, and heavily debated inaugural novel from writer Alissa Nutting.  It is based on the real-life events of a Florida teacher who had sex with her underage students.  In it, we are introduced to one of contemporary fiction’s most unbelievably cold and calculating sociopaths, Celeste Price.  While most of literature’s psychologically imbalanced men and women tend to be masochists and/or murderers, Celeste is instead an obsessive-compulsive sexual deviant and addict.  She just cannot get enough of the fourteen year old boys.  Yes, you read that right.  She, a 26-year-old high school teacher, preys on adolescent boys.

Indeed, Tampa is likely to be one of the latest and greatest in a long line of books that are sure to face (or face again) censorship and library ban requests.  Why all the drama?  Well, let’s begin at the beginning:  Nutting’s principal character (the young, first-time teacher, fresh out of her education program) opens her story with a masturbation scene, which leads into her recounting an anecdote about her first sexual experience with a boy, when she (and he) were just fourteen.  Thus the scene is set for her lifelong fascination with youthful teenage lovers.  Everything is told, by the way, in graphic, explicit, highly imaginative detail.

Shockingly, this reality is probably not the most unappetizing element of the book.  After all, there are places in the world where 14 (or younger) is the age of consent.  There are some nations and religions which marry-off their girls before they have even reached puberty.  So, while the age issue might be nauseating to most of us in certain political and social circumstances, it is not the worst of the story.  What is truly disturbing is Celeste Price’s narcissistic self-involvement, her willingness to do absolutely anything, to anyone, in order to get her way.  Maybe that means whoring herself out to a student’s father.  Maybe it results in psychologically damaging a young man, probably permanently, by making him believe that he is responsible for his own parent’s death.  Anything goes, as long as Celeste gets her sex.

At first, I was put-off by the very cold, clinical narrative approach.  The prose is distant, almost willfully antagonistic.  It is such as makes the reader not at all sympathetic to the Celeste’s “plights.”  But, of course, that is entirely the point.  Celeste is a cold woman who sees things in a very bizarre, unnatural way.  Life, for her, bends toward one direction – sexual gratification.  Her next fix is almost always on her mind, so all other matters fall off, like rain on a thrice-waxed automobile.  Are all sexual predators as entirely consumed as Celeste?  Probably not; however, creating a grotesque so as to make a particular point is one of the oldest narrative techniques, and it still works (as long as we do not fall into the trap of taking everything so literally).

Overall, I was satisfied with the book.  Perhaps satisfied is not quite the appropriate work, given the subject matter.  I think Nutting pushes the envelope – she is bold and daring in an environment and climate which, currently, is ever ready to pounce and condemn.  Unfortunately, her characters are quite lacking in breadth and development, which does mean the story falls somewhat flat emotionally, but I am not convinced that that is not somewhat intentional (I do feel for Celeste’s primary victim, sometimes, but that is about the extent of it – even her husband leaves much to be desired in terms of empathetic ability).

Cameron-Diazthe-sexy-teacher-1It is easy to understand how some have mistaken this novel for pornography.  After all, nearly every page (and certainly every chapter) is littered with sexual innuendo, sexually explicit inner-monologue, or actual depictions of (sometimes insanely wild) sex acts.  But, pornography?  No.  The purpose of pornography is to sexually arouse a person and stimulate them to orgasm.  That is not the purpose of this book.  Yes, it is graphic and, yes, it is detailed – it is, as much as I hate the word, highly taboo.  But its purpose is much greater than “to be daringly titillating.” In fact, that is not the point at all.  The narcissistic, sociopathic machinations of this school teacher may seem unbelievable, but that is exactly the point – there are people in the world like this (or near enough), and we, Nutting seems to say, remain happily and almost intentionally blind to this fact, particularly when it comes to viewing young women as potential sexual predators.  How do we imagine pedophiles, after all?  Creepy middle-aged white men?  But, what if that ridiculously attractive young woman happens to have a sexual preoccupation for young boys?  Or young girls?

My problem with the way it begs this question (and it is a good question), is that it does seem to fetishize, in a way, pedophilia or sexual predation from this vantage point.  That is to say – a traditionally written book about a sexual predator would likely make the villain wholly repulsive – and that villain would usually be a middle-aged white man.  Here, when the tables are turned and it is a female sex villain, she is almost unimaginably attractive, so much so that it is not just the young boys, but also their fathers (and maybe even some female colleague teachers) who want to devour her.  It’s a dangerous tightrope Nutting walks, and it leaves open for discussion some additional, important questions.  How do we view problematic sex situations, and how do we envision the “bad guys?”

The book isn’t supposed to strike terror into the hearts and minds of every young teenage boy (most would probably enjoy this book, actually) or their parents, but it is supposed to open the dialogue, and it does so by creatively re-imagining events that actually happened. It is a groundbreaking piece of work, but that doesn’t mean everyone will be able to stomach it.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adults+
Interest: Pedophilia, Sexual Predators, Abuse, Sociopathic Behavior, Narcissism, Psychology of Sexuality, Sex Addiction, Creative Nonfiction, Crime, Gender Roles (Stereotypes).

11 Comments on “Review: Tampa by Alyssa Nutting

    • Thanks for reading! It’s very, very explicit and graphic, but with a purpose. And as one whose favorite writers is William S. Burroughs, when I say graphic and explicit, you bet that’s what I actually mean.


  1. You said you were “satisfied.” Heh. Punny!

    I’m not sure if this is something I want to read or not. I think many of you have done a great job of reviewing this and making me think about the subject without having to read it myself.

    It’s true: When I think of the word “pedophile,” my mind automatically conjures up men. I’m not necessarily surprised when I hear about women sleeping with boys, though. I don’t gasp and think, ‘There’s no way a woman would do that!’ They just aren’t the first people I think of.

    This is a tough subject to come to one conclusion about, although not tough at all when it comes to teacher-student relationships. That is supposed to be off-limits no matter what.


  2. I hate to say that I enjoyed the novel but I do think that Celeste is one of the most despicable narcissitic characters I have read in a long time. It wasn’t the sex that got to me it was her whole attitude. She was cold and calculating. She knew exactly what she was doing the entire time.


  3. A remarkable review, Adam, considering the contents of the book. I daresay that older women sleeping with younger men for pure sexual gratification is no surprise. It is a trend slowly creeping into our social and cultural fabric over here. What is worrying is the teacher-student angle portrayed in the book.


  4. I didn’t really like this book. I felt like it’s been popular more because it’s shocking than because it’s good. Like you, I thought the characters were flawed, and some aspects of the story didn’t seem realistic to me. I don’t think the book itself does a very good job of examining the sexual double standard it portrays, but I do appreciate the dialog that has sprung up around it.


  5. I just loved your review, Adam. I have read many others out there and you all agree that this book is more well-known for its theme rather than for its quality. But what I loved is how you highlight that it creates a dialogue, which is one of the most important things for “taboo” works, and how Nutting plays with stereotypes. I myself imagine a sexual predator as a middle-aged white man and I’m embarrassed to do so. What about females? What about African-American/Indian/Hispanic population?

    Have you read “Confessions of a Sociopath”? It is the autobiography of a middle-aged, sociopathic, American woman and she also explains how people perceive her and how, due to her psychopathy, she is far more dangerous than she seems (and the advantages she takes of this perception). I think if you’re interested in that idea, you’ll like the book and of course, she’s a predator as well, not only sexual but social.


    • Thank you! And thanks for the suggestion – I’ll add it to the “tbr” pile. I’ve definitely heard of it.


  6. Pingback: Tampa- Alissa Nutting | Lucybird's Book Blog

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