Tampa held my attention, but it was very difficult to read because I couldn’t accept the main character as a human being. My idea of a sexual taboo doesn’t revolve around pedophilia, but I understand there are people in this world who have that “taste”. As a society we have agreed that anyone who has sex with a child is a criminal and those who break that agreement must accept the consequences.
Celeste is the deeply upsetting and petrifying focal point in which Alissa Nutting channels pure sex and lust of teenage boys. Several people who had read this before me likened it to American Psycho, which I think is a mistake. That novel struck a chord in our society because of its violence towards women and it’s vapid pop culture OCD. That book that seems tame in comparison to what happens in Tampa. What is more damning about Celeste is that she’s a High School English teacher. Now, lets step back for a minute. Zoe Heller covered this ground in Notes on a Scandal, and of course there is always Lolita. This isn’t new territory, and Celeste isn’t the first teacher in the history of literature to have sex with a student, and won’t be the last. Do people think this is still a taboo in contemporary writing? Or do they expect readers to be shocked by it, even titillated?
We never know why Celeste has this taste, and when her law enforcement husband finally corners her she tells it like it is, “it’s what I like.” Typically this kind of desire springs from an earlier sexual abuse incident. In this case we never know why Celeste is like this. Would it matter if we did? We could find that out, but isn’t it better that we don’t? It might be boring if we knew she was molested as a child, and then this would be cliché. Ms. Nutting delivers a perfect woman on the outside, Celeste is a super sexy, hot, totally idealized specimen who throws herself to the frothing and famished fourteen year old high school boys. Is she a monster or predator? Or just a person who likes to affections of a young boy? She spends her time sharpening the weapon know as “her body”,(like Chigurh in No Country For Old Men uses his weapon of death), making her image seamlessly desirable to the boys in her class.
She picks one unlucky kid, because at fourteen, boys with muscles and flat stomachs and no sexual experience are her cup of tea (they aren’t men yet, and no longer little boys, it’s a really tight window, she admits). Basically she might die if she can’t fuck a fourteen-year-old boy. If you can look past this, and let yourself fall into the haze of desire that burns off Celeste like steaming compost, then you will groove on this book. She stomps through her day dreaming of sex with Jack, then she gets him, but her desire is insatiable. Then Jack starts to drift, and we meet Jack’s Dad (every novel needs a foil). Why? Because Celeste won’t have sex with Jack in her own home, or be seen in public with him, her precautions are on full display. So they have sex in Jack’s house. This of course after Celeste stalks Jack, and spies him conveniently masturbating in front of his bedroom window.
Jack’s Dad falls into a stereotype, divorced, potbelly, horny. Then Dad catches Jack having sex with Celeste, ugh! (Like catching your parents having sex, you’re temporarily blinded). Now Celeste has to turn on a dime and save her skin, so she sleeps with Dad. From here it’s paint by the numbers, while she dances nimbly around several near misses; Celeste manages to escape all harm. At this point of the novel I started to wonder about the shame of the act she was committing, and if she was doing this because she wanted to be shamed. It’s never discussed, maybe that was intentional.
This book contains a series of sections that I thought were fantasy, but intriguing. (Like American Psycho, where the violence is imagined not real.) She watches two boys wrestling, and longs to be mixed in. She teaches Romeo & Juliet to her class and in her mind rationalizes her desires; classic literature seems like a crutch, but in the context of the story almost poignant. She only has sex with her husband when it suits her, or she senses that he might explode and kill her if she doesn’t comply. Celeste has to drug or drink herself to a near comatose level to allow him inside of her. He wants to have a child with her, start a family, which she rejects for two reasons; she doesn’t want to ruin her body and she admits this to her husband, so the adoption route is raised. This part she tells the reader; if it’s a boy they adopt she would have to leave forever, because she would end up having sex with her own son. This is where I turned my back on Celeste, as a human, despite the fact that she is a character in a novel. It’s just too overwhelming to think about, and now I can’t get her out of my mind.