Blogged at River City Reading
Alissa Nutting's forthcoming novel centers on Celeste Price, a first-year teacher with an intense sexual obsession with young teenage boys. With eerie precision, Celeste aligns each piece of her life to meet her sexual demands; she is well provided for by her wealthy husband and able to take a job teaching eighth grade English to scout potential prey. As the school year progresses, she lures her student Jack into a secret relationship, inching closer to exposure each day.
I could hear the teacher-verse exploding from the moment I heard Tampa discussed on the Bookrageous podcast. In general, we teachers tend to be uproariously opposed to anything that paints us in a bad light. Can you imagine what the general consensus will be just from reading the blurb? Unfortunately, I fear that's where many teachers will stop, despite the fact that they may remain caught up in the discussion. I figured if I was going to have a real opinion of the novel, I should probably read it.
There is no doubt, from the first page of Tampa, that Celeste Price is on the far side of sanity, with Nutting shouting her perversions loud and clear. Even readers well traveled in the smutosphere may find themselves shocked and appalled. It takes a jarring, disturbing, what-the-Hell-am-I-reading first few chapters to accept the fact that Celeste's blunt descriptions of her intentions and actions are not going anywhere.
At this point, readers can begin to appreciate Nutting's devotion to her character. From beginning to end, Celeste's vain, predatory, one-track mind never wavers. While it is something no one is comfortable with, Nutting's ability to crawl inside Celeste's mind and pick apart her thoughts on not only teenagers, but her husband and co-workers, is spot-on and often brilliantly funny.
I think it was wise of Nutting to forego a backstory for Celeste, though it left her feeling somewhat one-dimensional at times. Had readers known her family history or the path she took to her compulsions, Nutting would have opened the door for debate over the causes of pedophilia and might have distracted from the novel as a whole.
In the end, Tampa is a daring, well-written book willing to push boundaries and spark conversation. While it will surely leave readers feeling uncomfortable, it may also leave them feeling surprised by the change in a sometimes monotonic reading atmosphere.