For the fifteen minutes that they became household names, the majority of Americans asked the same question of Carrie McCandless, Debra LaFave, and Sandra Beth Geisel: What possesses a grown woman, an attractive woman at that, to engage in a sexual relationship with a male minor? And we’ve all heard the jokes; men saying, “where was she when I was in school?,” or as they simply said on South Park: “niiice.” The question in and of itself and the inappropriate humor that accompanies it merely reaffirms that, Sex and the City notwithstanding, sexuality in media is very much seen through the male lens. In instances where the sexes are reversed – male teacher, female student – most of us do not hesitate to label the situation as appropriately deranged and sick.
In Tampa, the highly graphic debut novel of author Alissa Nutting, we are reminded that perversion is perversion and, really, gender is irrelevant.
Frequently dark, often uncomfortable, and sometimes very funny, Nutting tells the story of Celeste Price. Celeste, 26, is beautiful, intelligent, married to a handsome man from a wealthy family, and seemingly wants for nothing. She is also an unrepentant pedophile. Nutting wastes few precious words as she delves directly in to the depths of Celeste’s perversion in a highly uncomfortable first chapter wherein Celeste describes her summer preparations to land a juvenile lover once the school year begins.
It is here, in the first few pages of what will undoubtedly be described as a “brave” piece of work, that Nutting takes her biggest gamble as a storyteller. Celeste’s inner monologue is so explicit that it takes truly masterful character development by Nutting to steer the book away from salaciousness and safely into the realm of discomfort and disgust. Much of the early narrative is overly gratuitous yet this is also a careful decision by the author to remind her readers that our narrator, like any other pedophile, is a pervert.
As the novel progresses, we learn that despite her status as a true sexual deviant, Celeste, is highly intelligent, incredibly manipulative, and a true sociopath. Once she chooses her prey, a quiet 14-year-old boy named Jack, the depths of personality are revealed, creating a complex character with relatively simple motives. Celeste beds Jack, Jack’s father (in a very bizarre and uncomfortable twist), another student, and very occasionally her husband all in an effort to serve one grand purpose: getting precisely what she wants.
Throughout the novel, as Celeste becomes deeply entrenched in her crimes, the reader is left with a seemingly unsolvable riddle: is Celeste’s ego fueled by her sociopathic behavior or are her actions driven by a colossal ego? Nutting leaves this question unanswered as Celeste’s life spirals out of control, eventually leading to one of the most darkly memorable climaxes one could hope for.
Perhaps the most frightening aspect of Nutting’s novel is that, when the dust finally settles and we see Celeste at her most basic and most helpless, we find that she is bereft of any sense of empathy or contrition. This is Nutting’s biggest triumph as a storyteller. Though we desperately want Celeste to amend her perversions or at the very least feel bad, Nutting again reminds the reader that most child molesters are serial child molesters because (drum roll) their sexual preference is for children.
We can only hope there is no film adaptation.
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