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By Alissa Nutting
Reviewed by Travis Fortney
Tampa is a novel about an extremely beautiful eighth grade schoolteacher named Celeste Price. By "extremely beautiful" I don't mean beautiful in the way that readers might be accustomed to encountering in novels. Celeste is beautiful in the excruciatingly maintained, surgically enhanced way: botox, pastes, peels, ion treatments, that kind of thing. If you've ever walked down Michigan Avenue in Chicago, gazed accidentally into the window of the Coach store and wondered who exactly would purchase a five thousand dollar purse, Celeste is your answer. She's fit. She's very composed. She's twenty-six years old. She drives a red Corvette. She's married to a police officer with a substantial trust fund. If you've scanned the Mag Mile looking for the purse purchaser, then you probably already have an idea of who Celeste is. In short, she's a young woman who walks on the same street as the rest of us, buys her coffee at the same Starbucks, but occupies an altogether different stratosphere of physical perfection, confidence, and purchasing power than we do. I can't think of another literary novel narrated by a character quite like this--although I would guess that the narrator of Lauren Conrad's L.A. Candy (a book I haven't read) comes pretty close on a lot of levels.
Of course the, difference between Celeste and the rest of those women on Michigan Avenue (and presumably the narrator of L.A. Candy) is that after buying that five thousand dollar Coach bag, Celeste would fill it with an array of dildos, which she would then use to ravage her "gaping wound" while fantasizing about eighth grade boys.
In Tampa many such masturbatory fantasies occur. Although that doesn't quite cover it. The first hundred-and-fifty pages of this novel are an endless cacophony (cover your eyes, children) of bruised vulva, engorged clitori, semen dripping out of stretched anuses, sweat-kissed thighs of pubescent boys, swaying peach-fuzzed testicles, smooth erect penises, perfect breasts, and wet mouths. To call this good writing seems like an absurd overstatement. I suppose it's impressive that Ms. Nutting has used so many different words that all mean vagina, and that she's found an equal number of words to mean penis. I suppose it shows creativity that she's shown all of those words for penis entering all of those words for vagina in so many ways. I'll even grant that--for the first fifty pages or so at least--Celeste's unrepentant search for a willing victim is entertaining.
But it gets old fast. For that first 150 pages there's no plot. Celeste fantasizes, masturbates, spies on a boy from her class, masturbates some more. She drugs her husband and masturbates in bed beside him. By the time all of her plotting and planning has actual produced a genuine erect penis, and that penis is attached to an actual boy, the reader has built up a wall against the onslaught of imagery, so that the impact of the sex scenes are dulled. By the time Celeste begins her torrid affair with fourteen-year-old Jack, all but the most patient readers will likely have lost faith in Ms. Nutting's ability to handle her plot. No spoilers here, but the novel's entire arc could easily be summed up in a sentence or two. The reason the book was so unsatisfying, for me, is that I expected Celeste's character to somehow broaden at the end of the novel. Not that I wanted her to have a change of heart or repent--I'm fine with reading about a monster, I just prefer to read about a fully human one.
I read in an interview that this novel is based on the real-life case of Brenda Lafave, who Ms. Nutting went to high school with. Ms. Lafave is also an exceptionally beautiful woman, and also had sex with a student. I wouldn't think the similarities run much deeper than that though. For example, Ms. Lafave was twenty-three at the time the assault occurred, was raped as a teenager, attempted suicide multiple times, suffered from panic attacks and bipolar disorder, etc. Though Ms. Lafave comes off as a bit of a sociopath in interviews, it's almost certain that her own interior monologue sounds more like that of a real person than Celeste's does in Tampa.
Ms. Nutting has been making the interview rounds promoting this novel as a social satire about our society's twin pillars of youth and beauty, or as a feminist novel meant to open a dialogue about the expression of female sexuality. That's a lot of rubbish though.Tampa is actually just a poorly executed thriller with an intriguing though not completely original premise, whose sole value as entertainment lies in Ms. Nutting's eagerness to shock. Other reviewers who call this novel "fearless", or "fiercely intellegent" are just using those meaningless words because they can't think of an actual compliment.
Out of 10: 6.5