Saturday, 17 August 2013

Review: Tampa by Alissa Nutting

Synopsis courtesy of

"Celeste Price is an eighth-grade English teacher in suburban Tampa. She's undeniably attractive. She drives a red Corvette with tinted windows. Her husband, Ford, is rich, square-jawed, and devoted to her.But Celeste's devotion lies elsewhere. She has a singular sexual obsession—fourteen-year-old boys. Celeste pursues her craving with sociopathic meticulousness and forethought; her sole purpose in becoming a teacher is to fulfill her passion and provide her access to her compulsion. As the novel opens, fall semester at Jefferson Jr. High is beginning."

Oh dear. Before you think I gave this one star because I'm a "prude", I actually gave it one star because I simply did not like it. The writing itself was lyrical and I think Nutting has some talent, but this book to me was the equivalent of painting the Mona Lisa with excrement. The main character is just so extremely ugly as a person; she is self-absorbed to the nth degree, obsessed with her genitals (which she describes relentlessly as if she couldn't possibly have a thought at all that wasn't first filtered through her sexual parts.) I found the constant stream of female reproductive organ descriptions tedious and boring. The story revolved around not a person and their psyche, but a walking black hole of sexual need. The language just droned on and on without end -- I almost feel qualified to be either a sex therapist or gynecologist and I'm only 80% finished with the book. 

The subject matter could have been handled so differently; I like that Nutting tackled it and I have read interviews with her in which she explains the inspiration for the novel, but what she said in those articles really didn't prepare me for the complete sex zombie that is Celeste Price. She's devoid of any emotion or thought that exists apart from her lust. Every action she takes is to satisfy that lust or get closer to satisfying it. She becomes a teacher to get close to her favorite prey, 14 year old boys. The boy she ends up choosing as her main victim is hardly fleshed out as a person at all. I felt that Nutting focused so much on Celeste that she missed out on giving the supporting cast their due. The initial encounter with Jack in the classroom also seemed odd; I couldn't picture him or any 14 yr old boy reacting like he did. Something about it felt off, and I wondered just how many teenaged boys Nutting interviewed for her research (or if she had asked men to recall their feelings as teens). Again, everything filtered through the weird Celeste-World glasses. And the view was just plain disgusting, honestly. 

Why do I use the word, "disgusting"? It could be that while Celeste is devoid of any care of what she's doing to Jack (and other boys), she is also unable to care about anything she does to ANYONE. I felt that Jack might have been the focus victim of the story, but everyone who came near Celeste ended up losing something. Everyone could be contaminated with her complete squickiness. It's almost like Nutting took How To Squick Your Audience in college and didn't stop with 101 but went for a full Master's Degree instead. 

I've read erotica; this isn't erotic. This isn't even pornographic (because that's supposed to be designed to be arousing; honestly, Nutting did it right when she made it completely UNsexy because we really shouldn't be enjoying what this woman does.) This is just GROSS. This is like watching someone lick vomit off a floor kind of gross. Or watching a dog eat poop kind of gross. Or reading about a woman whose head is crammed so far up her vagina that she's talking out her belly button kind of gross.

I would have liked to see a story where the main character suffered some kind of conflict in her heart and soul about her attraction to young boys; perhaps she could be torn about it, struggling to fight and overcome it and unable to do so. Some spark of humanity would be interesting. We don't watch Walking Dead for the zombies' personal story ("I'm a zombie and I want to eat people. That's all I want, really. Let me tell you about this desire that fuels my being for the next 300 pages..."), we watch Walking Dead for the story of Rick, Andrea, Glenn, Herschel, Daryl, Maggie, Carol et al. We are with them on a journey of struggle to survive, suffering, loss, fear, humanity and the loss of humanity.

The thing with Celeste is, she never comes across as even human at all. There's no soul to lose. I'd rather have watched her inner conflict and outer conflict collide in an explosion of chaos than to simply be stuck in a pit with her having to listen to her talk about her cooch for 272 pages. 


I finished the book and must say that from the beginning of the end (you will know where this point is when you read it and it has to do with the holding of a knife), the story really picked up as a story. There was a lot more action (that wasn't sex), the sex was finally finished (yay!), and we could get into what was going to happen to this woman. The reasoning going on in her head was still completely psycho, and it had some nicely shocking bits where you just shake your head and wonder how a person like this could actually exist. (You know she's a character but have sneaking suspicions that there may be a real-world example of her out there somewhere.) Even fictitiously she pushes the boundaries of believability.

I gave the book one more star just because I DID like the last section of the book. I wish the whole book could have been more like that and not so absolutely stuck on the genital lust descriptions and actions. I do wish the author had explored more of Jack's point of view about what happened (I think at that point I was desperate to hear from anyone BUT Celeste because being in her head for so long was maddening.) I wanted a different perspective, period. 

One great paragraph near the end eloquently describes how a grown man in a position of authority who knows what Celeste has done still looks like he "wants her" and she observes that he can't help himself "despite what that says about him" (I'm paraphrasing here as I don't want to drag the book out for a quote.) 

I feel that while this review may seem unfavorable to the author, the author has a writing talent and that shouldn't be confused with my criticism of the content of the book, though it's hard sometimes to differentiate between those two things. I can see the talent and believe that Nutting can write a way better book; I just don't like the direction she took with this story. The idea behind it was to show more about predatorial females who seem to get away with it all for simply being female. The dynamic between the older male and younger female is easy to criticize and Nutting seems to want to show how unfair it is to treat female predators so differently. I get that, I really get that. But the WAY she showed it was just so one track minded and her main character wasn't the best vehicle to showcase her point of view on society and the justice system. I feel that pretty much no time was spent exploring those factors at all, and that's what was really missing here. It came over as a weird, vapid attempt at porn rather than a scathing social commentary and it would have worked so much better as the latter. 

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