Twenty-six year old Celeste Price is incredibly beautiful and vain about it, married to the older, richer, toxic masculine, ignorant, aptly-named Ford. But she has a secret—her husband is seventeen years too old for her sexual urges. Celeste is a reverse Humbert Humbert, attracted only to prepubescent boys, fourteen year olds like the quiet boy, Jack Patrick, a student at the middle school in Florida where Celeste teaches. Remorseless, narcissistic, and constantly manipulative, Mrs Price engages in a relationship with fourteen year old Jack, and what happens from there will shock and stun you.
So goes Tampa by Alissa Nutting, a gender-bent Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov released in 2013. Nutting, a creative writing professor, wrote Tampa as a biting social satire, exploring society’s relationship with female beauty and how we view female predators. I read most of this book over the course of a day in a haze, really quite unsure what to think of it. Much like American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, which this book compares itself to alongside Lolita, I was left with way too many thoughts and no idea how and what to rate it, and whether I loved or hated it. It’s a book that makes you feel things, mostly uncomfortable, and sometimes it’s great to read a book that invokes a response other than “Meh! Totally forgettable”.
Years ago, I attempted to read Lolita, where Tampa drew its inspiration, but I wasn’t in the right mindset—I read books mostly for their entertainment value; I didn’t tend to read beyond the surface of a text. It was like only nibbling the the edge of a Ferrero Rocher and proclaiming I could taste the glorious Nutella inside. A bit of a confusing metaphor, but I found that Tampa, which I borrowed from the library after hearing about it on lists of disturbing books and recommendations on subreddits about dark fiction, was designed to be the sort of book that forces you to look beyond the surface. Reading Tampa makes you feel uncomfortable, and it gets you into the shoes of a deeply unlikeable protagonist who paints herself as a victim of circumstance and cannot be blamed for her despicable actions. A character who appears perfect on the outside, but is deeply flawed. A character who never truly improves as a person. It is a story of characters: mainly of Celeste and Jack, but with a backdrop of disgusting adult males like Ford and his fellow cops, and Jack’s father Buck, but it also tries to make Celeste a better character through comparisons to Janet Feinlog, a fellow teacher Celeste befriends, whom she utterly despises.
Janet Feinlog is everything Celeste isn’t, and she never hides her disdain for her co-worker, but it is a perfect display of Celeste’s utter narcissism and the truth behind the facade she presents to the public. Janet, with her ugly name and appearance and mannerisms, is Celeste without her human mask—everything Celeste derides about Janet is something Celeste herself is deeply uncomfortable about. We spend a lot of time on Celeste’s rituals and vanity—a clear mimicry of American Psycho—and her fears of ageing. She is disgusted by adult males who objectify her, but is thrilled when she receives the same attention from the boys in her eighth grade class, because it reminds her of her youth. One reading this almost feels sorry for Celeste: “Oh, she’s only a kiddy fiddler because of how society treats women!” And, to that, I say that is the narrative the character is forcing on you, the reader. Celeste is the protagonist, but she is no hero. Her aim is for you to sympathise with her, and while these behaviours by the adult men in her life are obviously wrong, Celeste also utilises this to her advantage. She claims to be “too beautiful” for prison. Suspicious folks like Janet Feinlog and Mrs Pachenko are not suspicious of Celeste in the slightest until she’s caught red-handed, because Celeste Price doesn’t look like your typical child predator. She’s caught in situations with Jack multiple times that should have signalled a massive red flag to his father, Buck, but instead Buck didn’t see what was wrong until too late. Even Jack, her victim, he is manipulated and molded by Celeste, but even with that, he still feels something that is not blind hatred for this woman who ruined his life for sexual satisfaction. There are many reviewers on Goodreads, angered by Jack’s behaviour towards Celeste at the latter half of the book, after what happens with his father, but that just says something about Alissa Nutting’s writing; that many readers are sympathetic for this remorseless character who feels nothing for anyone except herself. Jack experiences a great loss, is feeling immense guilt and countless other emotions, and all Celeste can think is that he’s annoying and not providing a good fuck.
The second half of the book, after Celeste is caught red-handed, becomes a discussion on whether she really is a pedophile, because can pretty women really be rapists? look at those boys and their hormones! they’re definitely the ones with power in this unequal dynamic because their brains are ruled by their dicks! Or, as the defense lawyer says: “If you were a teenage male, would you call a sexual experience with her abuse?” While these cases are predominantly not the norm and this book is fiction, there are some real-life cases where a female teacher is arrested for grooming her teenage male students, and the reaction from so, so many is: Oh, I wish that were me, or like Buck Patrick’s original greeting to Celeste, “I did not have teachers like you back in my day, I’ll tell you right now. Jack, do you realize how lucky you are?” (p. 136) Celeste is constantly sexualised by the men in her life, and many times amps up her beauty to cause such a reaction and control any given situation. She is in control of her sexuality, and is disgusted by women who don’t have the same focus on beauty as her, like Janet of course, but also the protestors whom she sees as ugly housewives and their husbands are probably glad they’re out protesting because it means less of their ugly cankles and fatness at home. Celeste Price is not a character to be holding up a good sex-positive role model, because while she takes control of her sexuality, she ramps it up to the highest possible extremeness—obsessed with sex and youth to the point where she breaks the law and ruins multiple innocent lives. At times, Tampa can read like glorified erotica, erotica with a controversial subject matter, like how Fifty Shades of Grey is ostensibly about a BDSM relationship but is really about a power imbalance that becomes a toxic abusive relationship between a billionaire and a naive virgin. One could be forgiven for reading this book as erotica, because there are a lot of sex scenes, lots of masturbating, all usually taboo subject matter, and then it dawns on you that one of these characters is twenty-six and the other is fourteen, and suddenly you need to take a half-hour break from the book, and then you pick it up again, read and forget, suddenly realise again, and then the book is over and you realise the justice system is all for show and those with privilege and money don’t face the same consequences as the hoi polloi and you feel like you need to take a cold shower to forget what you’ve just read.
Tampa by Alissa Nutting is a controversial book that is well-written and succeeds in its task of shocking the reader. While I could have done less with the overdone sex scenes, they were needed to drive home the point of the villain protagonist’s morality. While it has much in common with its predecessor, Lolita, the book really comes into its own and leaves you empty, shaken, and after you’re done, constantly thinking. Not for everyone. A memorable book, but one I wouldn’t read again.