This is the book about the pedophile teacher–maybe you’ve heard of it? I was wary of reading it because of the subject matter, but enjoyed an interview I listened to with Alissa Nutting and know some friends found the book interesting. I’ve been way off on my predictions for what I’m going to like and not like lately. I thought I’d have conflicted feelings about liking a book about a woman who seduces and statutory-rapes a fourteen year old, but I actually don’t have to wrestle with those feelings because it turns out that I didn’t like the book for a few other reasons, too.
Weirdly, I found that Tampa had a lot in common with The Woman Upstairs. Both protagonists would be absolutely horrified to find themselves compared to each other, and I could compare them, although the similarities I found were more overarching than simply the self-absorption of their narrators. Both books suffered, I thought, from a lack of “something else going on.” In Tampa, there is really nothing but the main character, Celeste’s, obsession with young teenage boys. The only other thing I could find that she actually cares about is her youthful beauty, but that was still in service of her praying on these kids. I think a short story can be sustained on a single-minded goal, but in a novel, I look for a few threads coexisting to inform each other. The only glimmers of other plots here were various impediments to Celeste’s molestation of her first conquest, or her first conquest’s dangerous discovery of her second. What I think would have taken the novel into much more interesting territory is if Celeste had cared about something else. Her teaching would have been an obvious choice–what if she actually was a good teacher? There was zero cognitive dissonance; it was all landing the job, drugging her husband and fooling the kid’s father to get what she wanted. It wasn’t that I wanted her to feel bad about what she was doing–it was more interesting that she didn’t–but it was actually boring to read about only one motivation for two hundred and eighty pages.
Speaking of the length of the book–I read it in about three hours. It went really, really quick. There was nothing to slow me down here, nothing to ponder or parse. There was nothing hidden or slightly below the surface, no untangling to do, no connections to make. It was well-written in that the writing disappeared; no awkward sentences tripped me up or took me out of the story, but none of them did any more than they had to, either. I also wonder about the title–why Tampa? Sure, it was set there, but that was incidental. I think it was only mentioned specifically once, near the end of the book, that they were even in Florida. Was that important for a reason I missed? I was trying to think of the word “tamp” perhaps, but nothing is tamped down in this book.
The arc of the book was also oddly flat. Celeste is at the same extreme level of depravity for the entire novel. She starts out having no qualms about identifying an eighth grader to sleep with and ends in the same way. Her outward circumstances have changed by the end of the novel, but her inner landscape is essentially the same. That is interesting, and perhaps good insight into the mind of an actual pedophile, although I don’t know that a reader can take this book as a true glimpse into the mind of a person who commits crimes like these–maybe real-life women think like this and maybe not. It was only sort of believable, again because Celeste didn’t care about anything else. If her urges had been mixed in with other ones to make her more of a round character, I would have believed it more. I kept thinking of this Northern Irish television series I just watched called The Fall, which is about a serial killer and the detective hunting him. There is no mystery–the audience knows right away who the killer is and spends a great deal of time in his presence. He’s completely horrible and focused on finding and killing his next victim, but he also has a family we see him with, a daughter he really loves, a job as a grief counselor he is alternately terrible and sort of effective at. I hated him thoroughly, but still felt nervous every time he was almost caught. In Tampa, when Celeste came close to being discovered, I sometimes barely realized it was happening. The tenor of the novel almost never changed, beginning to end.
I would read something else by Alissa Nutting–I think she is daring and that this book was an interesting experiment, but not, in my opinion, a successful one.