Review: Tampa by Alissa Nutting


Celeste Price is an eighth-grade English teacher in suburban Tampa. She’s undeniably attractive. She drives a red Corvette with tinted windows. Her husband, Ford, is rich, square-jawed, and devoted to her.

But Celeste’s devotion lies elsewhere. She has a singular sexual obsession—fourteen-year-old boys. Celeste pursues her craving with sociopathic meticulousness and forethought; her sole purpose in becoming a teacher is to fulfill her passion and provide her access to her compulsion. As the novel opens, fall semester at Jefferson Jr. High is beginning.

In mere weeks, Celeste has chosen and lured the lusciously naive Jack Patrick into her web. Jack is enthralled and in awe of his teacher, and, most important, willing to accept Celeste’s terms for a secret relationship—car rides after school; rendezvous at Jack’s house while his single father works late; body-slamming encounters in Celeste’s empty classroom between periods.

Ever mindful of the danger—the perpetual risk of exposure, Jack’s father’s own attraction to her, and the ticking clock as Jack leaves innocent boyhood behind—the hyperbolically insatiable Celeste bypasses each hurdle with swift thinking and shameless determination, even when the solutions involve greater misdeeds than the affair itself. In slaking her sexual thirst, Celeste Price is remorseless and deviously free of hesitation, a monstress driven by pure motivation. She deceives everyone, and cares nothing for anyone or anything but her own pleasure.

With crackling, rampantly unadulterated prose, Tampa is a grand, uncompromising, seriocomic examination of want and a scorching literary debut.


Is aging a purely biological phenomenon? Mere unceasing cellular division? Or is age psychological? When we celebrate the 15th birthday of a teenage boy, are we applauding the accumulation of millions of acts of mitosis during the past 365 days? Or are we commemorating the accumulation of new memories and experiences, often difficult, leading to the discovery that the world is not a kind place?

In Tampa pedophilia is nothing more than the extreme fetishization of youth. A permissible, not entirely indecent fetishization. The protagonist Celeste, a 26-year-old middle school teacher attracted exclusively to her male students, sees no reason to apologize for her desires. Other people fetishize animals or various bodily functions; why shouldn’t she fetishize 14-year-old boys?

So Nutting is asking a more interesting question: not shouldCeleste feel guilt for her urges, which when sated and viewed legally amount to nothing less than statutory rape, but why does Celeste even feel this way? What about her makes her a pedophile? She’s already an interesting case—neither male nor grimy, but female and extraordinarily beautiful. And what Celeste seems to recognize, only briefly and altogether unconsciously, is her desire for young boys is actually a desire for youth. By sleeping with a man-child, she is, in a modern twist on an old wives’ tale, bathing in the blood of virgins to rediscover her own youth. A rediscovery not only of youth in its physical apogee but of youth in its mental apogee as well, in all its innocence, where a really hot teacher hitting on you could never be seen as a conscienceless sex offender; no, she’s just lonely and looking for company. With every day, with every act of mitosis and every new reminder that the world is cruel, Celeste loses youth, a youth that has largely protected her from the world. As a young woman, especially an attractive young woman, she is expected to guard and cherish and polish her youth for the world—her misguided approach to this expectation is to sleep with young boys.

Interestingly, although Celeste believes youth saves you from the world and its problems, Nutting continually shows that beauty saves more than youth. Several characters, adult and child, fail or simply refuse to see Celeste as a semi-sociopathic pedophile because she’s just so gosh darn pretty! Her supreme attractiveness blinds everyone else, and you can’t help get the feeling that maybe all her canoodling with teenage boys is just an attempt to have somebody finally actually see her and her ugliness.

But perhaps I’m just explicating, finding reasons where there are none and should never be any. That’s what these books do, these books that focus on criminals and unapologetic characters with a sympathetic eye and glamorous flourish. The fact that I’m theorizing about Celeste and her motives and her guilt and her innocence shows what a fantastic writer Nutting is. Because Celeste is difficult to even stomach. She’s a character very much of the moment; I cannot imagine a female with her libido existing in literature a few decades ago, especially when that libido is directed toward male children. There’s a fantastic eroticism to the story, which feels extra squicky because an author should not be able to write better sex scenes in pedophiliac literature than most authors can write in ho-hum, by-the-numbers novels, but lo, that’s what Nutting does.

What this book centers on, again, is control. Notes on a Scandal, another teacher-student romance I recently reviewed, circled this topic like a particularly lackadaisical vulture. More subtle in exploring authority and its origins, its power structures were ladders where one rung didn’t necessarily lead to the next. InTampa, however, Celeste possesses complete control and authority over everything: the other characters, the plot developments, her own fate, and even us, the readers. There is nothing but Celeste, making her an awesome, terrifying creation to behold. NoaS, and Lolita too, are much more focused on love. Love is what excuses the protagonists from their illegal actions. Sure the child was underage, but they loved the child! Adored the child! Tampa is 100% sex. In Life and Literature, love and sex often bleed together, but here the delineation has never felt more absolute. There is self-love, which Celeste cultivates for herself and her heavy ego. But her boy-prey are not objects of love but mere sex, masturbatory tools for her pleasure that just happen to live and breathe. Celeste (and Nutting) controls everyone here; I dare you to defy her and find this book’s truth, if there is one.

4 out of 5 stars


Review: Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham


“There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told,” writes Lena Dunham, and it certainly takes guts to share the stories that make up her first book, Not That Kind of Girl. These are stories about getting your butt touched by your boss, about friendship and dieting (kind of) and having two existential crises before the age of 20. Stories about travel, both successful and less so, and about having the kind of sex where you feel like keeping your sneakers on in case you have to run away during the act. Stories about proving yourself to a room of 50-year-old men in Hollywood and showing up to “an outlandishly high-fashion event with the crustiest red nose you ever saw.” Fearless, smart, and as heartbreakingly honest as ever, Not That Kind of Girl establishes Lena Dunham as more than a hugely talented director, actress and producer-it announces her as a fresh and vibrant new literary voice.


For someone who has branded herself as “not that kind of girl” by titling her first book Not That Kind of Girl, Lena Dunham is still a very specific kind of girl with a very specific kind of (girl) fan, just not that kind.

Lena Dunham is the kind of girl who can write a sentence that makes you guffaw, “That can’t possibly be true!” and yet you believe it. A sentence like this:

He called me terrible names when I broke up with him for a Puerto Rican named Joe with a tattoo that said mom in Comic Sans.

She’s the kind of girl who observes, reports, analyzes, and reanalyzes until a situation is both gravid and devoid of meaning.

She’s the kind of girl who’s self-indulgent, self-involved, yet self-aware, so you can’t fault her for it. The kind of girl with a lot of self, for better or worse.

And therein lies her ineffable charm. Lena is a self. A voice to be adored, hated, broadcasted, muted, screamed over, listened to raptly. A voice to be heard. It’s refreshing to hear someone so young believe and argue that she has something to say. This confidence in self thus leads to hordes of fans, other girls full of various selves they want to share but don’t exactly know where or how or even if they can, because it might be scary.

I just wish Lena had taken this platform that she has built and decorated and adorned with Emmys and haters galore by age 28 and said something more…relevant? It’s a haphazardly constructed book, assembled like a 3rd grader doing papier mâché for the first time: ideas glued together, but no idea quite full enough to stand alone, no idea quite properly connected to the one attached to it.

People who have big, bursting selves that they are eager to share with a world that is often not ready to receive them frequently become bloated on their own raucous tales. I am a listener. When I meet people, I say barely anything about myself and pepper my partner with questions. I am a listener, and I’m completely content living my life this way. But sometimes you meet people who take advantage of your proclivity for listening. Lena, I expect, is one such person. Sure, I agreed to read her book, which means I willingly consented to listening to the mundanities and brilliances of Lena Dunham for at least two hundred pages. But it was too much at times. I don’t want to hear about that one time at summer camp when you were 14 years old unless you were my 14-year-old cabin bunkmate during my 14-year-old summer at Camp Birch Trails and we’re reminiscing. And maybe not even then.

Midway through the book, tempted to skip another essay seemingly rehashing the same old topics that I stopped caring about one hundred pages ago, I asked myself: are there stories that simply don’t need to be told? As a lover of stories and storytelling, my knee-jerk response is to say no, loudly and declaratively. But I’m reconsidering. Not every story has some latent meaning, awaiting discovery and retrospective analysis decades later. Not every story deserves to be shouted from rooftops or graven on paper. Some stories are just things that happen. To us they’re important. We should keep them, love them, learn from them. And then we should pack them in boxes in the backs of our minds, mature and aware that they are simply some parts of our “selves” that we don’t need to share.

3 out of 5 stars

Review: A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo


Twenty-three-year-old Zhuang, the daughter of shoe factory owners in rural China, has come to London to study English. She calls herself Z because English people can’t pronounce her name…


Lately I’ve been obsessed with stories about impossible loves, those unrequited, betrayed, or starcrossed loves. I read books about two characters who’d die for each other but somehow cannot live for each other. I watch romantic movies with endings that are never happy, often sad, if I’m lucky hopeful. And I ask my friends about their loves and their friends’ loves and their friends’ friends’ loves: have any of them found someone and had it work out? has anybody found a love that is possible?

I want to know for selfish reasons. In the same way you’d swallow a pill to cure illness, I consume love stories to soothe an anxious mind and an ailing heart. But it’s also aesthetic, a universal pursuit for stories that show us impossibility and how it is sad and therefore quite beautiful.

I feel like Xiaolu Guo is a kindred spirit, a partner anthropologist observing, seeking, and probing impossible loves. Because in A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers she creates a real humdinger of an impossible love: a 24-year-old Chinese woman with limited English plus a 40-something English man with limited empathy. Here’s the thing about impossible loves: we can’t stop believing they’re possible. Zhuang, the plucky and honest protagonist, recognizes it’s doomed from the start, and so do us readers. And yet, Zhuang continues to fill the pages of her journal with discussions of her love and we continue to turn the pages.

Cultural, political, and personal differences complicate their relationship, but most difficult is the linguistic difference. When Zhuang arrives in London, her English is very poor. Guo writes her brilliantly—there are verb tense issues, vocabulary misunderstandings, basic syntactical errors—but it reads very true and creates this wonderful image of a foreigner displaced, helpless, and looking for a mooring. Zhuang writes English in her journal daily and makes slow progress until she meets her lover. Suddenly, a blossoming: Zhuang’s intimate awakening is accompanied by a linguistic awakening. As she finds words in this once impossible language, she finds hidden pieces of herself.

‘Love’, this English word: like other English words it has tense. ‘Loved’ or ‘will love’ or ‘have loved’. All these tenses mean Love is time-limited thing. Not infinite. It only exist in particular period of time. In Chinese, love is ‘爱’ (ai). It has no tense. No past and future. Love in Chinese means a being, a situation, a circumstance. Love is existence, holding past and future.

But how much importance do words really have? Can malicious ideas take root even without words to hold them down? What ties two people to each other—words? history? desire? Whatever the answer, Zhuang learns that it’s not love.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: Notes on a Scandal [What Was She Thinking] by Zoë Heller


Schoolteacher Barbara Covett has led a solitary life until Sheba Hart, the new art teacher at St. George’s, befriends her. But even as their relationship develops, so too does another: Sheba has begun an illicit affair with an underage male student. When the scandal turns into a media circus, Barbara decides to write an account in her friend’s defense–and ends up revealing not only Sheba’s secrets, but also her own.


Another novel in what I’m tentatively labeling the “pedophilia genre,” Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal reads much less perverse than previous entries in the genre mostly because Heller shifts the focus from the relationship between the adult sexual deviant and his or her child lover to the relationship between the adult deviant and her older, possibly also deviant friend.

The tone here is sanitized, careful. It’s narrated by Barbara, a senior teacher at a London school where she befriends Sheba, a younger teacher who meets Connolly, a fifth-year schoolboy who becomes her lover. Barbara is erudite and constructs her reconstruction of the events almost as if she is writing a British comedy of manners. Explicitness is explicitly ignored, recounted briefly and factually to provide a narrative frame but nothing more. In fact the most libidinous moments occur not between Sheba and her boy nymphet but between her and Barbara.

There’s also just something decidedly less sinister about a female criminal. We are more likely to laugh and jeer at a woman who breaks the laws of sexual consent than we are to curse and spit at her. Is it because women are more prone to seek love? Although the book is subtitled What Was She Thinking, it’s difficult to say what Sheba was thinking, her thoughts being filtered through Barbara’s recollections and biases. But there is a strong averral that Sheba was in actual, unadulterated, genuine love with Connolly, which shouldn’t complicate matters but seemingly does. Sheba becomes a pitiful character, someone to sympathize with even as she awaits her trial for obvious wrongdoing.

And in that unwanted but undeniably sparked sympathy lies the question: do books that discuss the intimate lives of pedophiles glamorize them? I.e., for all of its eponymous hubbub, Lolita is a book about Humbert Humbert. Notes on a Scandal accomplishes an even weirder trick: it’s not about Connolly, the 16 year old boy lover; it’s not about Sheba, his 40-something-year-old pottery teacher and lover; it’s about Barbara, Sheba’s senior citizen friend, confidante, and keeper. In adding a third level of displacement from the real victim, Heller suggests that Sheba may be just another victim. The age difference between Sheba and Barbara is nigh equivalent to that of Sheba and Connolly. And despite the absence of sexual perversion in their relationship and the admittance that they are both fully acting adults, it’s just as controlling, one-sided, and desperate.

Who is the victim here? Connolly? Sheba? Barbara? Connolly is excused by pleading immaturity. Sheba knows her relationship with Connolly is forbidden but is helpless before her own vast emptiness. So Heller forces us to ponder: can the guilty also be victims? Is prey and predator but a human imposed dichotomy? Criminalize Sheba, punish her, chain her we must; but blame her gently, softly, with a kindness that comes from being happy and knowing better. We are left then to assign most of our rage to Barbara, Sheba’s jailer if Sheba were wise enough to see the lock and key. If we strain our eyes, we can see how Barbara might be just another victim in a long chain of victims, of prey and predator, of people who hurt others because they are hurt themselves. But there is no god hovering above Barbara manipulating her strings. We can imagine one, of course: a vicious mother, a bygone lover, a society that condemns spinsterhood but condemns lesbian relationships even more vehemently. Heller hasn’t provided a perpetrator to Barbara’s victimhood, however, so the blame rests there, with the oldest, the wisest, and the loneliest.

Books like Notes on a Scandal complicate issues that we don’t want to see as complicated. They interrogate questions that we don’t want asked and tell us that victims are not isolated, even in black and white crimes like an adult sleeping with a minor. Open your eyes to the chains of guilt but know that the blame will always and must always come to rest in one place and on one person.

4 out of 5 stars