CBR-V Review #40: Tampa by Alissa Nutting

A guy working at my favorite bookshop recommended this to me after seeing me perusing shelves for 30+ minutes, and after hearing me point out Herman Koch’s The Dinner to my boyfriend and gushing over it. He promised me that if I liked that book I’d love this one, and so I bought it, won over by his enthusiasm and the cool cover of the book (the book jacket is made out of velvet).

I was honestly a little disappointed. This wasn’t a bad book by any means, but I feel like it loses a lot of its novelty about halfway through.

Tampa  is the story of 26-year-old Celeste Price, a beautiful young schoolteacher who has a dirty little secret: she’s attracted to pre-pubescent boys. She sees her new job as an English teacher at a middle school as her opportunity to find the perfect boy to seduce and fulfill her sexual fantasies, and she’s right–soon after starting, she meets Jack, a sweet, naive 13-year-old who falls head over heels for her. Soon engaged in regular trysts, Celeste must find a way to keep her affair going while keeping her dull and dim-witted husband appeased and while heading off the advances of Jack’s father, who has also expressed an interest in her. This is an examination of a sociopath, a cold and calculating woman who has everyone fooled.

I definitely see how this could be compared to The Dinner, but I actually think a comparison to Gone Girl is more apt. I’m not going to spoil that book here, but if you’ve read it, you’ll understand how a certain character is extremely similar to Celeste. Celeste is ruthless and deceptive and driven solely by her lust, and was, 100%, a completely unlikeable narrator. I kind of liked that–it’s unusual to have narrators that are so despicable and so hard to relate to/sympathize with. Seriously, Celeste has no redeeming qualities. It’s kind of creepy to see how well Nutting inhabits the mind of a sociopathic pedophile, and it definitely made me sick to me stomach at points. I also think taking on a reverse-Lolita situation was an interesting choice, and I liked how Nutting touches on societal perceptions of male vs. female sexual predators.

That being said, I had a lot of issues with this book. Number one is the level of sexual content. Honestly, I’m a really open person and I’m definitely not a prude when it comes to sex scenes in my reading/watching material. But this book seriously went a little bit overboard, to the point where it just got boring. It felt like 75% of the book was sex-related, and I found it excessive. I get that the point is that this woman is driven by lust and obsessed with sex, but it got repetitive. I also think that Nutting misses the mark a bit by not highlighting how young Jack is–she kind of seemed to forget that he was just a kid, and although she throws in random scenes here and there to emphasize his age/naiveté, he mostly comes across as a love-struck equal to Celeste…which was wrong. I hated the fact that I kept forgetting how sick the situation was simply because of how he was characterized, and I think it could have been a more powerful book if we were really introduced to age/power dynamics, which were kind of lacking here. Finally, I found the end to be rushed and unsatisfying, and I thought that the last quarter needed to be expanded to have any real impact.

Overall, it’s not a bad read, and it’s definitely one of those “have to keep reading, what the hell is going to happen next?” novels, but in terms of a nuanced, captivating portrait of a sick mind (obviously, Lolita comes to mind here–one of my all-time favorite books) it falls short.

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