Book Review: Tampa by Alissa Nutting

Posted August 27, 2013 by LeahAdmin in Reviews / 19 Comments

Book Review: Tampa by Alissa Nutting
Tampa by Alissa Nutting
Published by Ecco on Jul. 2, 2013
Pages: 272
Genres: Fiction
Source: Giveaway / Gift

It’s the night before her first day teaching seventh grade, and all of Celeste’s dreams are about to come true. The sexy 26-year-old has worked for years to become a teacher because, as many teachers say, she loves kids. Celeste is a little different, though. Her love of kids is less “they are the future” and more “I am obsessed with their undeveloped pubescent bodies.”

Celeste has become a middle school teacher with the aim of seducing her male students. Ever since losing her virginity at 14, she has been attracted only to boys of that age — and her attraction is all-consuming.

Soon after the school year starts, Celeste chooses her lover/victim, a boy named Jack. He’s… surprisingly willing to go along with everything she says, and pretty soon they’re fucking at his house while his dad’s at work almost every day.

Obviously, this book is super disturbing. Nutting puts you right there in Celeste’s head, and the first-person narration works really well. It is very unsettling to learn the depths of Celeste’s obsession and to see the world (and 14-year-old boys) through her eyes. Her thoughts, and they way she acts on them, are sickening.

Tampa has been one of the most talked-about books of the year, and when I was having trouble getting my hands on a copy, Jen of The Relentless Reader kindly sent me her galley. (Thanks Jen, you’re a rockstar!) I’m glad I got the chance to read this book, but after reading it, I think the hype lies more in the controversial nature of this book than its quality. I just… didn’t think it was very good.

I thought the characters were flat; there is nothing more to Celeste than her sexuality and her craving for adolescent boys. Wanting to have sex with young boys, figuring out how, logistically, to make this happen, and trying to not get in trouble for her perversions are literally the only things she thinks about. Oh, and how she can drug herself to avoid being conscious around her husband. The other characters are similarly shallow; Jack never feels like a real person, either. He’s basically just a sex toy for Celeste — a very willing, enthusiastic, never-tiring sex toy. Which he basically is. But it didn’t feel real, you know? I suppose you could attribute that to Celeste’s narration; from her point of view, the only thing that matters about him is his sex. That doesn’t really satisfy me, though.

I also don’t quite buy the ease with which Celeste seduces her students. They are 14-year-old boys; I’m sure they have sexual fantasies and are eager to be with girls, but is it realistic how quickly Jack (and later Boyd) have sex with her? They’re completely inexperienced, and yet they have sex with her in the first week that she shows them her breasts? They don’t want to go any slower than that or have reservations about sleeping with their teacher? They don’t seem awkward or nervous enough for 14-year-old virgins.

I know the point of this novel is to examine a societal double standard; if a young girl sleeps with her male teacher, she’s viewed as a victim, but a young boy who sleeps with his hot female teacher? Good for him! That’s the fantasy! Why wouldn’t he want to sleep with her?! But I didn’t think this message was executed very well. I didn’t feel that the portrayal of Celeste as a sexual object was a criticism of society’s tendency to view women that way. That was the reality of her character — unless Nutting’s purpose in making her this way was to make readers think, “No, women aren’t really like this. This is a myth,” which also seems problematic; she shouldn’t have to make her characters/story unbelievable to make a point. (Should she?) Also, would a person who really does think of women this way raise this objection? Or would they just nod along, their suspicions confirmed?

I’m glad I read Tampa and can join the discussion about it, but I think it’s popular more because it’s shocking than because it’s good. I’m glad it’s gotten people talking more about gender stereotypes and the way society views women, but the book itself didn’t do it for me.

Thank you to Jennifer at The Relentless Reader for sending me her galley of this book!

EDIT: Check out the comments for some alternative perspectives on the realism of the characters/situations in this book. Some of my judgements were based on assumptions, and I’m glad other bloggers chimed in with their own insights and perspectives.

  • I didn’t review this and I guess I don’t plan on it either. I don’t really have a good answer for why not. 😉 You’ve written a great review about a very (VERY) disturbing book! Way to go!

    • I noticed that you hadn’t reviewed this, and I was wondering why. It happens sometimes 😛 Thanks!

    • I noticed, too. Now I know why.

  • Readers and bloggers I trust always reach the same conclusions you did: the first person narration is quite powerful, but the book is more famous because of the controversy than for its quality. I totally agree with you that it the theme is a great one and it is still needed to explore and inscribe the double standard, but for what I heard this book does not contribute much.

    I was first interested in the book, now I no longer am. Neither Sam from Tiny Library neither you liked it and I trusted you so much that I have no doubts this is not my cup of tea.

    • Nutting is a strong writer — I’m reading her short story collection, and it’s funny in a really dark, twisted kind of way — but this book felt like it was shouting “Look at me! Look how messed up I am!” Good concept, poor execution.

      I don’t think you’re missing out on much by skipping this one.

  • I was okay with the one-dimensional characters because of the nature of her obsessions (I work with sex offenders and her thought process/interactions were pretty spot on). But I totally agree with your thought that her seduction of Jack and Boyd was too easy. Sure, she was supposed to know how to pick boys that would receive her advances, but I don’t think it would have been quite so simple…at least not twice in a row.

    • Thanks for sharing your insight! I’m obviously too sheltered 😛 But it’s good to know that Celeste’s portrayal is actually realistic.

      At least there was the one boy between Jack and Boyd who did shut her down; that was a bit redeeming.

  • One huge reason I won’t (maybe even can’t) read this book is I teach 7th grade boys! So yikes! This would make me sick to my stomach I think. I’m kinda glad people aren’t finding it very good…too disturbing. Like a criminal 50 Shades of Gray!

    • Ew, I imagine this book would be extra queasy-feeling for you! I don’t know that I would compare it to 50 Shades of Gray; it is provocative, but it does have a purpose of getting people to talk about a sexist issue.

      • I’ll take your word for it – I didn’t read 50 Shades of Gray either!

  • I haven’t read the book, but I would say that the ease with which she seduces 14yo boys is realistic. I know some of my 14yo guy friends back in the day would have jumped at the chance to sleep with a couple of teachers we had–I mean, boys are pretty easy (and they don’t necessarily change as they get older). Haha!

    • I guess I’ve never really know many 14yo boys, and I just assumed that most of them are all talk when it comes to something like this. I can totally see boys palling around with each other, talking about how they want to screw the hot teacher, but I imagined that many of them wouldn’t have so much bravado if the opportunity actually presented itself. But now I think you’re right, there are some who would jump at the chance, who would have the confidence and drive to go for it. It seemed too easy for Celeste to pick just the right boys so accurately, without many false starts, though. Thanks for chiming in 🙂

  • I am looking forward to reading this book simply so I can join the conversation. I’ve heard so much about it and it’s been a long time since I’ve read a, “I can’t believe they went there” book and this one is definitely one of those.

  • Wow, what a crazy topic to tackle! I hadn’t heard of this book before but because of the controversial topic, I’m not surprised to hear that it’s gotten some hype. It’s a shame it isn’t executed better, because I agree with you that the double standard is an issue that should be addressed.

  • I haven’t heard or read this book, but it does sound like it could be a controversial read. I also understand and can relate to your qualms with this book. I will keep this book in mind, maybe I will read it, just to see what the hype is about.

    • I think it’s worth a read if you’re curious, and I would definitely check out other reviews, too; there are a lot of differing opinions about it!

  • Thank you for this review- and all the great comments. This is one I’m going to take a pass on. There are simply too many things out there I want to read and I’m not sure I would appreciate this one.

  • I’m still dying to read this one! I know there are mixed reviews, and it’s one I want to read for myself. I like how you said that, though, that it’s one that is worth checking out other people’s comments on.

  • river simons

    Goodness. This is definitely a book that everyone’s going to have an
    opinion about. Never mind whether or not they’ve actually read the book,
    they’ve got something to say!
    Landscape Architect Seattle