It’s a familiar narrative, both true crime and fictional: gorgeous, nubile female teacher beds barely pubescent male student. Most infamously in the real world, there was Mary Kay Letourneau, the angel-faced blonde from Washington state who first seduced her sixth-grade student Vili Fualaau when he was 12, had his babies, went to jail for several years for her transgressions, and ultimately married him when she got out of the clink. More recently another blonde beauty was dominating the headlines. Debra Lafave, a Florida teacher who had sex with her 14-year-old male student and was under house arrest for three years, has been described as looking like a Miss America contestant.
Though these couplings are statutory rape, as a culture we don’t know what to do with this dynamic. We don’t look at it as a simple matter of sexual predation, the way we do when a male teacher or coach has sex with an underage student. It’s often treated as a punchline, so often that Susan Sarandon has played a foxy teacher who had sex with a teenage student in two different comedies (on 30 Rock and in the Adam Sandler movie That’s My Boy). Which is part of why Alissa Nutting’s new novel, Tampa—inspired by Lafave’s story—feels so fresh. Instead of treating the female-teacher-male-student sexual dynamic as a joke, or a Van Halen–soundtrack fantasy, it paints the female teacher as a sociopath and the teenage boys she has sex with as irrevocably damaged by their interactions with her.
Even the most famous literary hebephile, Lolita’s Humbert Humbert, has the good sense to feel guilty for his obsession with nymphet Dolores Haze. Tampa’s Celeste Price doesn’t feel guilty at all. Nutting has deliberately created a fully unsympathetic heroine in the form of this model-beautiful, Corvette-driving 26-year-old narrator. Celeste’s entire life is constructed around her sexual compulsion. She only becomes a middle-school teacher so she can satisfy her obsession with 14-year-old boys; she married a rich man she didn’t love so that she could be supported in style while she lusted after teenagers.
Unlike Sheba Hart, the teacher at the center of the teacher-student affair in Zoë Heller’s bestselling novel Notes on a Scandal, or Letourneau—both of whom claimed to be in love with their teenage paramours—Celeste has zero affection for the boys she sleeps with. They’re just interchangeable objects for her, ones chosen for a combination of looks and whether she thinks she can have sex with them without getting in trouble. Nutting doesn’t let Celeste off the hook by giving her a sad-sack backstory or a history of childhood sexual abuse that would explain her single-minded pursuit of young men. She lets Celeste be purely grotesque.
Because Celeste is the narrator and she doesn’t care about the emotional lives of her lovers, we get mostly physical descriptions of her prey. But it’s clear that Jack—the main object of her affection—enters into the affair with something less than wholehearted excitement. Celeste describes the sound of Jack’s labored breathing during their first sexual encounter as like “he was running away from something,” but she’s such a narcissist that she twists Jack’s frightened reaction to her come-ons as consent. Without spoiling the plot, I will say that eventually Celeste’s obsession with Jack destroys his entire world—it’s an outcome that’s far different from the kudos fictional comedic heroes receive when they have affairs with their teachers.
Nutting’s book isn’t solely an attempt to reframe how we think about women and sexual predation, but it’s also a sly commentary on our shallow society. Celeste is allowed to carry on with Jack because all her peers—male and female—give her the benefit of the doubt. They do so because Celeste is beautiful. She spends tons of money on spa treatments like glycolic peels and countless hours at the gym so that she can maintain the power she knows she has over people because of her glowing, youthful appearance. Even a ferretlike, unattractive, straight female teacher loves Celeste because of the way she looks. In an interview with the literature blog HTML Giant, Nutting puts it this way:
“It’s a satirical message to say ‘we’d rather have our nation’s women be beautiful pedophiles than be dowdy humanitarians with cankles.’ But looking at the images of popular culture and what it champions, I think that’s actually a far less satirical message than I wish it were.”
Nutting’s willingness to have a truly evil and unredeemed female narrator is laudable, and the book is well written, but I found it tiresome in parts. All obsessives are ultimately boring, and it would be as exasperating to read endless elaborate descriptions of say, basketball games, as it is to read so many lascivious descriptions of adolescent boys in Tampa. By the last quarter of the book, I was only skimming Celeste’s detailed descriptions of her conquests, though I understand why Nutting chose to include them, as they’re faithful to Celeste’s characterization.
I imagine Tampa will be marketed to the 50 Shades of Grey crowd. The book has a black faux-velvet cover that feels fuzzy under your fingers and would not look out of place in a cheesy boudoir. But beyond a lot of sex scenes, the two novels have nothing in common. Ana, the heroine of 50 Shades, is a derivative cipher, while Celeste is a finely rendered creation. While 50 Shades may have opened the gates for more sexually explicit novels to get published, Tampa raises the bar for their quality.