Tampa is certainly a controversial book. New English teacher Celeste Price is young, attractive and married to a rich and handsome man. But her life is consumed by her desire to have sex with fourteen year old boys. Every single decision she makes is designed to bring this closer to reality; she accepts a run-down classroom because it has a lockable door, she drugs her husband because the idea of sex with him repulses her and she spends a small fortune on anti-ageing treatments that she doesn't need in order to look as young as possible. When the first term of the academic year begins, Celeste begins to search for a teenage boy that fits her criteria, so that her years of preparation will not have been in vain.
I wasn't expecting to, but I found Tampa to be a disturbing book. It's narrated in the first person and takes you right inside the head of Celeste, which isn't a happy place to be. Her whole life is based on sex and the possibility of sex with teenage boys, literally every single decision she makes comes down to this. Her sexual fantasies and later experiences are related in detail in a graphic way. It wasn't this detail about sex that bothered me, more how all-encompassing, intense and yet clinical it was, and how disturbing some of her fantasies were (and not just because they were about teenage boys, even if it was about men this book would be disturbing). Nutting isn't pulling any punches in Tampa and you can tell that from the cover alone. She picks you up, drops you in Celeste's head and although it's a fascinating, authentic and excellent character study, it leaves you feeling grimy afterwards, like you need to wash out your brain. There is a lot of sex in this book, but there is absolutely nothing sexy about it. I admire what Nutting has done in creating the character of Celeste and shining a spotlight on female sex offenders, but Tampa isn't a book that you can enjoy reading.
What I most appreciated about Tampa was the way it highlights the sexual double standard in society when it comes to cases of this kind. When Celeste is eventually caught and taken to trial, her crime isn't taken seriously by some of the commentators, because doesn't every 'hot blooded' teenage male want to bed an attractive teacher? This double standard is everywhere and it really bothers me. Her defence lawyer even argues that Celeste is too beautiful to go to prison, as she would be in danger of being raped by other inmates. No one would ever make this argument to defend a male sex offender! So although Tampa is difficult to read and extremely graphic, it definitely shines a light on the way we think of male and female sex offenders as a society, and that alone makes it worth reading.
As Tampa is basically an in-depth character study of a female psychopath, the secondary characters aren't developed properly and there's no real character development for Celeste herself. This began to bother me in the latter half of the novel, as I would loved to have found out what Celeste's husband and victims were really feeling, but we only get to see them through Celeste's distorted eyes. Celeste really has no empathy for the boys she abuses and even when some disturbing things (aside from her abuse) happen in the later stages of the book, she's unable to show any remorse or think about anything apart from her sex drive. This gets wearying for the reader by the end of the novel.
This is one of the longest reviews I've written in a while because if nothing else, Tampa is a book that you will have opinions about. I am of the opinion that the graphic nature of the novel is needed in order to really shine a light on female sexual predators and the double standard our society has towards them. I didn't enjoy reading it, but I thought it was an excellent character study and Nutting certainly is capable of putting you in Celeste's head.
Source: From the publisher, via Netgalley
Published: July 2013
Score: 4 out of 5