Tampa by Alissa Nutting
My rating: 4 of 5 teacups
Believe me, I can easily understand all the negative reactions to this book but I can’t help but find it absolutely fascinating.
In fact, since putting the book down, I’ve given myself a while to think about it and, the more I do, the more I find myself acknowledging how clever and brilliant it is. And even feminist in a way, but I’ll get to that later. You should be aware, if you haven’t already gathered from other reviews, this book is full of vile descriptions and crude language. Being inside Celeste’s head makes you feel like you need a good long shower afterwards and if you’re not ready for graphic descriptions of the female anatomy and masturbation methods, then you’re not ready for this book. No details are spared here: you have been warned.
The story is about eighth-grade teacher, Celeste Price, who on the outside appears to be everything anyone would want to be: attractive, intelligent, happily married… but underneath the surface lurks a secret she has kept hidden since she was fourteen years old. A secret desire for fourteen year old boys. It plagues her every thought, every step, every move. In private, all she can think about are ways to act upon her longing. She wants to set herself up in a position to engage in an affair with one of the objects of her desire. And eventually, an opportunity arises. Celeste begins a sexual relationship with the fourteen year old Jack. She pursues him, seduces him and uses him to fulfill her sexual needs. There is no love or romance in this story. The only one fooled is Jack. Celeste is not another Humbert in that she never attempts to convince the reader or herself that what she does is for love. It’s all about sex.
What this book does, above everything else, is make us question the gendered view we have of sexual relationships. We are inside Celeste’s mind, getting a good look at how perverted, depraved and even sociopathic she is, so we experience outrage at the way society and the law allow her to escape justice because she is an attractive young woman. There’s an assumption still often being made that women are the passive gender in a sexual relationship and that men are natural predators/aggressors. It’s hard for us to imagine a woman sexually abusing a man. This question is even asked in the book: “If you were a teenage male, would you call a sexual experience with her abuse?” A teen girl with a male teacher is considered a victim of his evil manipulation – a passive victim without a sexuality of her own coming into play. But a teen boy with a female teacher is victim of nothing more than the perfect teen male fantasy. Can attractive women really be rapists? Isn’t Celeste just giving the boys what they want? Doesn’t that make it okay? These are the questions one might ask if they weren’t living inside her mind.
While the disgusting and graphic language left me feeling uncomfortable at times, I also felt it was completely necessary to make the point effectively. The point being that a woman can be as much of a sexual predator as a man and that teen boys can be as much of a victim as teen girls. If we’d been treated to something akin to Humbert’s narrative in Lolita, if it was our sympathy that Celeste looked for, I think the important message would be completely missed. We needed Celeste to be a monster and a sexual predator to show that women can be. And to show how female monsters often go unpunished because of their gender. It reminded me of Gillian Flynn’s characters and the way she creates such fantastically evil women. It’s strange, I suppose, to consider that creating female murderers and rapists is a form of feminism but I think it serves to break down ideas we hold about gender. I also think it’s incredibly important to acknowledge male abuse by females because it does happen and nowhere near enough is written about it. It’s such a taboo subject that male victims often feel ashamed of it and unable to get help.
I have to confess: I quite liked the language. Well, okay, perhaps “like” is the wrong word but I really appreciate crude honesty in books, particularly when the author utilises language the way this author does. I’m not sure we needed such a graphic description of Celeste’s vagina and her masturbation methods but, what the hell, it certainly achieved it’s purpose with me. And, strange as it may sound, there was an odd beauty to the author’s writing that gave a certain artistry to such descriptions. They were gross, naturally, but weirdly poetic.
One thing that is true most of all about Tampa: it makes you think. I put it down and literally spent about an hour sat there, just going over everything in my head. I thought about the way we view relationships, what this means for both men and women, victims and rapists; I thought about the judicial system and the way the law isn’t about guilty/not guilty but the show you put on (which admittedly made me sing Razzle Dazzle from Chicago); I’m still thinking about it all now. One thing I can say for certain – I’m really glad I picked this up.