Tuesday, March 25, 2014
Tampa by Alissa Nutting
Celeste Price is a young and beautiful eighth grade English teacher. With her luscious blonde hair, inclination for revealing clothing, and coquettish attitude, it is no surprise that she is the target of many of her adolescent students' desires. It is surprising, however, that despite her seemingly stable marriage, she longs for her students in return. Mrs. Price is obsessed with young men on the brink of adulthood and fantasizes about them constantly. In fact, her decision to become a middle school teacher was based solely on her desire to be near them. She has a type: shy, cautious, androgynous, not yet showing the tough, brutish trace of manhood, and Jack Patrick, a quiet but intelligent student, fits the bill. Tampa is the story of their passionate, yet warped relationship that begins celebrant and carefree, but quickly takes a dark, psychologically-tormenting turn.
[Caution: The rest of this review does include a very large spoiler].
I'm late to the party on this one...
I was going to give this book three stars, which is kind of a big deal. In my elaborate and, until now, unspoken rating system, three stars says "this was enjoyable" while four stars is "memorable, touching, recommendable" and five stars is "devastatingly good." Quite honestly, this surprised me. I did not expect this book to be fun - I thought it was just a shock novel designed to sell copies (and maybe it still is and I'm just coming to terms with the idea that I enjoy these things), but it was fun. I read it in one sitting.
I enjoyed the vampirical nature of Mrs. Price. She knows she's horrible, vain, and greedy, she knows she's using these boys and scarring them forever, and she loves it. She takes what she wants, giving nothing in return except the occasional use of her body. She doesn't bother feeling any real emotions toward her victims other than lust, and when she does accidentally end up feeling protective and maternal, she turns those feelings into yet another avenue of sexual expression. This lady is crazy and it's fabulous.
She's also intelligent. She has created an elaborate world of lies and excuses through which she can trot, adolescent boy on her arm, unscathed. She can play her husband like a piano. She knows exactly which lies to tell him in order for her adultery to go unnoticed. She has also created a similar atmosphere at the school in which she works. Due to her manipulation, she is able to hold class in a lockable, curtained trailer away from the main building. She ensures that the teachers who like her most are kept on staff and uses her lesson plans as a way to encourage her impressionable students to talk about sex. From her intricate plans and deep understanding of her relationships, it is clear that her entire life revolves around satiating her needs and hiding them adequately afterward. She's a mastermind on par with Patrick Bateman from American Psycho (I'm wondering if Jack Patrick's name was a tip of the hat to Ellis? There are many similarities between the two novels that will not go unnoticed to those who have read both).
So, because of her intelligence, history of thinking things through extensively, and preparing for every single outcome before making a move, I was angry, really, truly angry, when the biggest plot hole in the universe opened up before me: She gives Jack Patrick, her first love affair, a prepaid phone to use to contact her. After things get messy with Jack, she takes his phone back. A truly smart and preemptive woman would have gotten rid of the phone or acquire a different number for it (we know she has the money), but instead, she gives the phone to her new victim, Boyd. [But she still has time to save this plot! Everything will be okay, I told myself. Nutting wouldn't do this to me...] When Boyd tells Celeste that he received a mysterious phone call from an unknown number and the person hung up after he answered, it's very clearly Jack. He had the prepaid phone for almost an entire year. He would know the number. Instead of thinking, "My God, I screwed up. It's Jack!" and beginning an awesome and ass-kicking campaign to silence Jack before he came to get his revenge, she thinks, "Maybe my heretofore bumbling husband magically found out about this secret phone that he's never seen and traced it with his Super Police Powers." She also guesses that it was a wrong number call, but, at this point, it's like she's visibly trying to shake and mislead the readers. She's screaming, "Please, let me still have my plot twist!" and has abandoned all of her carefully constructed personality traits for the sake of one dramatic moment when Jack shows up unannounced.
I felt that perhaps Nutting had originally intended Celeste to have a rational plan for the prepaid phone; When she takes it from Jack, she tries to think of what she'll tell him if he asks about it. She considers telling him that she stopped paying for it and someone else has inevitably gotten the old number (this happened to me - I got someone's old number when I got a prepaid phone, so I'd totally believe this route). But Nutting leaves this thread dangling.
Tampa was entertaining and even, at times, scary, but because of the gaping, illogical mess to do with the prepaid phone, I could only give it two stars. Curse you, prepaid phones.
Buy Tampa now in hardback, paperback, e-book, or audiobook format from Amazon.
Photo: Ecco Press