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.