Tampa by Alissa Nutting

A deliberately uncomfortable read on an already heavily taboo topic.

This was based on the real life case of Debra “too pretty for prison” Lafave. She was a high-school English teacher who sexually preyed upon the young male students in her class, whose prosecutor famously said that “to place Debbie into a Florida state women’s penitentiary, to place an attractive young woman in that kind of hellhole, is like putting a piece of raw meat in with the lions”.

It’s a novel with quite a bit of bite to it. It’s satirical and controversial and not just due to the topic choice but the way Alissa has approached it. When I first read it, I thought it was effective in its purpose: to shock and remind readers that women are just as capable of being evil, depraved, and cruel as men; that paedophiles aren’t just creepy strange men wearing trench coats in alleyways.

However, when I realised that it was based on Debra Lafave and not just because of this:

Overall the attention felt more adoring than judgemental; they relished the audacity and vanity of my defense. “Your honour,” my attorney began, “my client’s looks would make her a particularly susceptible target for sexual violence and harassment in prison. She’s too beautiful to be in the general population of jail.”

But there’s the inclusion of so many tiny little details unique to the case:

  • Both Debra and Celeste previously modelled in bikinis posing on a car and pictures surfaced during their prosecution.
  • The fact that it’s set in Tampa.
  • Celeste’s preferred choice of victim is the same age as Debra’s victim.
  • Celeste is also sentenced via a plea bargain like Debra.

This changed it for me. Due to the multiple elements, it doesn’t feel like a stand-alone story anymore, or even a basis for ‘inspiration’, and because of this, I expected a little more, like Alissa could have gone into further discussion on how society doesn’t have the same level of sympathy for male victims as it does for female victims. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s missing something.

For example, Celeste is single-mindedly focussed on her next conquest and this makes her character a more one-dimensional than Lolita’s Humbert. When she was in prison and being confronted by her drunken and furious ex-husband, this was all she could think about:

I felt a surge of injustice at the irony of it all: Ford was completely inattentive to the unlimited sexual potential he could leave my cell and start enjoying. How simple it would be for him to walk into a bar and find a partner of legal age whom he was attracted to, take her home and proceed to orgasm. Yet he had no sense of appreciation for his liberty. Instead he’d go home and drink and sulk. Perhaps make an ill-advised intoxicated drive to a late-night gun range. While I’d have given anything I still owned for just an eyedropper of Boyd’s semen to play with, there was nothing stopping Ford from running off to taste the full spectrum of the Kama Sutra rainbow, but he didn’t even care.

Also some of Celeste’s attempts, despite being repulsive, are hilariously pathetic and desperate, like when she insists that she’d gladly rifle through her student’s bin looking for the tissues he masturbated in.

There’s also the social assessment that makes you laugh and feel guilty for reading it.

This was the reason that Ford married me, and why I could make the argument that I was a better wife for him than a woman who was actually smitten: love makes people feel accepted, and like Bill’s wife they then begin to break the rules. I had a clearer picture of our marriage contract’s unspoken line items than most women: Ford wanted me to stay in shape, look good in front of his friends, and make him look good in return.

But the assessment on teaching and the education quality is superficial at best, the comments from teachers on how some children drained the life out of them isn’t exactly revolutionary.

It’s an intentionally depraved novel and is highly successful at it but it doesn’t have the same depth that it could have had. I would still recommend it because of how controversial it is and I do like the way that it’s written.

On another note…

Alissa Nutting stated that she went to school with Debra Lafave but never interacted with her. I beg to differ. This was not written by someone who had a passing meeting with the accused. You don’t write about your popular ex-classmate as an egocentric sociopathic paedophile if you only had a passing acquaintance. I can practically smell the bullying and the Mean Girl-ing.

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