People are talking about Tampa, and when people are talking about a book, I usually feel like I should read it so I can speak intelligently about it a...morePeople are talking about Tampa, and when people are talking about a book, I usually feel like I should read it so I can speak intelligently about it at work-- an occupational hazard of being a librarian. It was more than professional curiosity, though-- I knew that author Alissa Nutting went to high school with real life teacher/sex offender Debra LaFave, and that she was inspired to write this book because there was such a dearth of literature that dealt with the subject of female sexual predators (interview with the author here if you’re interested). I remember being fascinated and utterly confused by LaFave’s story when it first broke. Obviously she was a predator, but for better or worse, she was judged much less harshly than a male offender would have been in the court of public opinion. There are a lot of questions about gender, consent, and moral culpability tied up in this story, and I thought it would be interesting to spend some time poking around in LaFave doppelganger Celeste Price’s brain. I was right.
First of all, trigger warning for pretty much everything. This book is GRAPHIC-- horrifically so. You will not enjoy reading the sex scenes, and you are not meant to enjoy them. What Nutting is doing (and doing brilliantly) is showing you a complete picture of Celeste Price the monster. Once you’ve spent some time in her head, you’ll never fall for the “female sex offenders are just lonely women who made some bad choices” line again.
Calling Celeste a sex offender doesn’t really do her justice, though-- I know how awful that sounds, but stay with me. Celeste is, at her core, a sociopath. She is an apex predator-- Patrick Bateman in a low cut blouse and kitten heels. Her sexual obsession with young boys is certainly the most disturbing aspect of the story, but you could swap that out for any other obsession and the core of the narrative would still be the same. Celeste doesn’t care about Jack-- he’s essentially a sex toy, an interchangeable part that meets certain criteria and can be easily replaced. She doesn’t care about her husband, but she tolerates him because his money pays for the prescription drugs she uses to self-medicate, her vaguely sexy teaching wardrobe, and her hilariously over the top anti-aging beauty regimen. People only matter to Celeste to the extent that they can help her achieve her goals, whether they realize that (Buck) or not (Ford). She’s a sociopath, a narcissist, and a monster. And she’s fascinating.
This is a very difficult book for a variety of reasons, and I wouldn’t fault anyone who decided not to finish it (or not to start it in the first place). However-- and this is a big however-- if you can stomach it, this is a really good book. Nutting is a fantastic writer with a real talent for character development, and it's hard to believe this is her first novel. Celeste is an atrocious human being in every sense of the word, but she’s an incredibly compelling character. There’s a vein of very intelligent dark humor that cuts through this book, and I laughed out loud at some of her horrible observations about her life and the world around her:
"Due to the sallow smallness of her eyes and nose, her retainer was her most prominent feature. I wanted to forcibly hold her in front of a mirror and question the image: 'Can faces actually look like yours?' "
”There was something repulsive (and revealing) about talking on a cell phone while handling garbage. Why did anyone pretend human relationships had value?”
“Jack smiled; illuminated by the movie screen, his expression caused a series of micro-wrinkles to form at the corners of his eyes. Perhaps he wouldn’t be opposed to starting a preventative regimen of retinol? Surely I could gently convince him of its benefits.”
Celeste's narcissism is her defining (as well as her most interesting) characteristic. She's always used her appearance and her sexuality as weapons to get what she wants, and that works out well for her right until the minute it doesn't. When the truth finally comes out, she is genuinely bewildered that her loved ones don’t flock to her aid. It never occurred to her that she wouldn't be able to sweet talk her way out of this situation because she’s never had to face any consequences for her actions before. Celeste does have extremely rare moments of what appears to be human decency, but her character is still completely beyond redemption, and that makes her eventual downfall even sweeter. Nutting did a great job of humanizing Celeste without asking us to sympathize with her in any way, and the fact that she is a horror show from start to finish makes the preceding pages of graphic sexual content easier to stomach.
Did I enjoy this book? Yes. I agree with another reviewer who said that any book that makes you think is a *good* book, and this book certainly made me think. The writing was excellent, the characters were compelling, and I’m genuinely glad I read it. Will I read it again? Not a chance. Tampa has earned a spot at the very top of my “books I enjoyed but will never in a million years read again because I don’t hate myself THAT much” list, and I don’t see it being dethroned any time soon. (less)
I read this book as a teenager and really enjoyed it. I reread it today, as an adult woman who watches the news and tries to keep up with current even...moreI read this book as a teenager and really enjoyed it. I reread it today, as an adult woman who watches the news and tries to keep up with current events, and it scared the hell out of me. Brilliant and terrifying on every possible level.(less)
This book is pretty much the definition of a perfect beach read. It was witty, funny, and surprisingly romantic, all things considered. It was great t...moreThis book is pretty much the definition of a perfect beach read. It was witty, funny, and surprisingly romantic, all things considered. It was great to see She-Hulk's personality shine in a different way than it does in the comics. I'd love to read more prose books about my favorite superheroines, and I'd really love to read another She-Hulk story!(less)