Author: Alissa Nutting
Date Published: 4th July 2014
Publisher: Faber & Faber
This book review is a compromise, as it was read with the intention of joining in with the Bloggers Book Club meeting hosted by Sunny Sweet Pea and The Cup and Saucer, which I unfortunately could't make as it clashed with dinner plans. Will that make it easier to discuss? Considering the subject matter, absolutely not! At least this way my blushes will be wholeheartedly disguised behind my screen...
Tampa is by first time novelist Alissa Nutting, and man did I not know what I was letting myself in for. To be fair, I did vote for this book, but the graphic descriptions and toe-curling subject matter made me want to shield my kindle from prying eyes on the tube.
The story follows self-obsessed and deliciously vain Celeste, who is a middle school teacher and also, as we immediately learn, a hebephile (someone sexually attracted to those on the cusp of sexual maturity). We aren't eased in to this fact, we are thrown in to Celeste's licentious world of pre-pubescent teenagers and secret encounters in the back seat of her car.
After the initial shock of the opening chapters the underlying themes of the novel held real promise. A beautiful, married, young teacher with a ridiculously high libido chooses student Jack Patrick as her partner, not from the allure of danger but because of a deep rooted desire to be the standard against which all his future sexual partners are compared with. Weird? Yes. Disturbing? Yes. Psychopathic? Quite possibly. I was hoping for a slowly unfolding character profile, tapping into the darker side of human nature and told through a figure that is certainly not conventional.
Unfortunately, the novel seems so caught up in the desire to be scandalous that the complexities of Celeste's character and the careful manipulation with which she taints the boys gets lost in overly-graphic details and a taste for the fantastical. Why write a novel like this? It's pretty daring for a first time author and the content itself was always bound to split reactions. Well, I've done a little digging and as it happens, the fiction is not as unbelievable as you would think...
In 2004, a 23 year old English teacher from Tampa, Florida (sounds familiar) was reported to have engaged in illicit activity and sexual misconduct with a 14 year old boy, of whom she taught. Debra Lafave was a married (also familiar) incredibly attractive and almost doll-like looking woman (Ok, it's the same person, right?!). To make all this even more tantalising, the author of Tampa, Alissa Nutting, is reported to have gone to school with Debra Lafave herself. Can you imagine finding that out about an old school friend?! Lafave was eventually arrested during a sting operation, and while her capture had a lot less knives and nakedness than that of the novel's Celeste, her defence lawyer's arguments are strikingly similar.
The tabloid persona built up around Lafave was that she was, quite simply, too attractive to be a criminal. In fact, the provocative line that Celeste thought herself 'too pretty for prison' was actually used by the defence in Lafave's trial. Of all the institutions in society, the law courts are surely exempt from the allure of attractiveness, right? Wrong. Lafave served three years of 'house arrest', despite similar crimes committed by male teachers receiving far heavier sentences. During the trial, Lafave's sexual abuse as a minor was given as a possible explanation for her actions and attitudes towards sexual conduct, which is a feature I can't help but feel would have made Celeste a far more complex character had Nutting chosen to include it.
Nutting's exclusive concentration on graphic sexual encounters robs the reader of a story which could have been far more ambitious and complex, whilst addressing issues that surround the vastly disparate attitudes occurring towards men and women committing crimes against minors and how this effects their sentencing in the court of law.
Tampa has been compared to Vladimir Nabokov's classic novel Lolita, however Nabokov's beautifully written and complex book doesn't have a single explicit sex scene. The reader is fascinated by the novel's protagonist, not exclusively repulsed by them, which is unfortunately what I felt towards Tampa's Celeste.
The context of the novel promises so much, but delivers so little. The writing is good and has some great lines in it, however it's not enough to carry it. If you want a steamy romance novel, don't pick it up. If you want a complex, psychological thriller, go for Nabokov instead. Nutting's Tampa sits somewhere awkwardly in the middle, and as a result I'm giving it 3/5 stars.
Excellent choice for The Blogger Book Club meeting, despite it's being cast to the back of the bookshelf!