Celeste Price is an eighth-grade English teacher in the suburbs of Tampa. She’s young, blonde, and works hard to be the perfect kind of attractive so many people find irresistible. She’s married to a wealthy man named Ford who is devoted to her, but he doesn’t interest Celeste in the least. She’s devoted to boys much younger than her husband, and teaching eighth grade is the perfect place to find them. When she finds her next target–a fourteen-year-old boy named Jack Patrick, Celeste works every trick she has to fulfill her every sexual desire and need. The two embark on a secret relationship, each one enthralled with the other for very different reasons. But there’s danger in their relationship, and it’s a ticking time bomb in more ways than one.
Alyssa Nutting’s Tampa is a hard book to read, and an equally hard one to review. Although it’s been released for a relatively short time, the book is making serious waves–and dividing readers left and right. As it should be, I guess, because the book doesn’t shy away from the the gritty reality of the story it’s trying to tell. This is a story about a female pedophile, and it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Modeled after the story of Debra LaFave, a young teacher who had sex with her 14-year-old student, got caught, and didn’t end up being convicted because her lawyers argued she was “too pretty for prison” (guys I’m not making this up), this is a character study of a person whose sexual perversions drive their entire life.
And what a character study it is. In all my years of reading, I’ve never come across a character like Celeste. She’s smart, conniving, and obsessed with her bottom line. Readers looking for a hell of a story with the epitome of an unreliable narrator should look no further. Being inside Celeste’s head is one of the most uncomfortable experiences one can have, and yet Nutting does such an incredible job of creating an authentic voice that readers will never question Celeste’s thoughts and actions.
Because this is Celeste’s show, most of the other characters take a backseat. But Nutting’s sharp eye for crafting supporting characters means that although Celeste’s own rampant narcissism takes up most of the story, there’s still room for some acerbic characterization of the people unfortunate enough to be trapped in her web. Everything about the book is as deliberate as Celeste’s actions, and it pays off.
Completely unforgettable and uncomfortably memorable, this is a novel for readers with a strong stomach. I’m not sure I’d ever wish to come back to this story, but the characters have stayed with me. Reviewers who compare this one to Lolita must have read a different book. Recommended.
Tampa by Alyssa Nutting. Ecco: 2013. Library copy.