At BEA this summer, I went to a blogger party at HarperCollins where they gave us a bunch of ARCs, including Tampa by Alissa Nutting. I hadn’t heard of it before, but I’ve certainly heard of it now. I just Googled it and here are some of the terms that came up: “the sickest book of the summer”, “a wild ride”, “a flat out horror tale”, “a performance piece” and “the most controversial book of the year”.
Tampa is about Celeste, a beautiful 26 year-old who has an obsession with teenage boys. She is sexually insatiable and so driven in her need to seduce 14-year olds that she can literally think of nothing else. She is also a sociopath – someone with no conscience and a complete lack of empathy. All she cares about is sex with prepubescent boys, and remaining attractive enough to be able to seduce them.
Tampa is an explicit book, full of graphic sex and disturbing scenes involving 8th graders. But it’s also a deeply funny book that made me laugh out loud on many occasions. Celeste is a terrible human being, and Nutting very successfully gets into her head and gives her readers a glimpse of what could propel someone to act as Celeste does. There is also suspense – you know that this story won’t end well, but just how, and how badly, will it come to its inevitable close? Nutting’s writing is smart and bitter and extremely entertaining at times; just like in Lolita, the book that Tampa keeps getting compared to, the writing is what makes this book worth reading. (FWIW, Lolita is one of my top 5 favorite books of all time.)
As the mother of a baby boy, it is of course incredibly disturbing to think about predatory women like Celeste in positions of authority over boys who aren’t yet at the age of consent. And as the mother of two kids approaching middle school, the thought of a teacher taking that job just for the proximity and access to a steady diet of fourteen year-olds is also incredibly disturbing. Unsurprisingly, of all of Celeste’s objects of scorn – her doltish cop husband, the lecherous father of her boyfriend Jack, the annoying teenage girls in her class – soccer moms seem to fall victim to her greatest ridicule.
Despite the horrors inherent in this book, I kept with it nonetheless and am glad that I did. Nutting accomplished something pretty difficult – getting her readers to be interested in how one human being could be driven to do so many awful, selfish things, over and over. If you found this review intriguing, check out Tampa. If not, then I’d recommend taking a pass.