Fiction

Luring a teenage boy into her web

 

An eighth-grade teacher seduces a student in a novel modeled on ‘Lolita.’

 
TAMPA. Alissa Nutting. Ecco. 266 pages. $25.99.
TAMPA. Alissa Nutting. Ecco. 266 pages. $25.99.

How readers respond to Alissa Nutting’s new novel will largely depend on how they feel about reading detailed descriptions of sex between a 26-year-old middle-school teacher and the 14-year-old boys she craves. Some readers will praise the story as an uncompromising look at a remorseless sexual deviant. Others will dismiss it as a distasteful act of provocateurship. Either way, the controversy will presumably move some copies.

The other warning readers should have is that, by the author’s own admission, Tampa baldly borrows from Lolita. It’s is basically a cover of Vladimir Nabokov’s classic, like a local wedding band doing a Beatles tune.

Nutting’s narrator, Celeste Price, may be a sociopath, but she’s an undeniably pretty, buxom blonde. The wife of a good-natured but doltish cop, Celeste has taken a job as an eighth-grade English teacher to get closer to boys “at the very last link of androgyny that puberty would permit.” Like Humbert Humbert, she must choose her victim carefully: He has to be just a little shy, unlikely to brag and not too supervised at home. Like Humbert, she eventually has to submit to sex with a repulsive parent to ensure continued access. Like Humbert, she’s eventually free of that pesky parent without having to resort to a weapon herself.

The boy she falls for is Jack Patrick, a perfectly mediocre young man. They go at it in a variety of venues. “Sex struck me as a seafood with the shortest imaginable shelf life,” Celeste confides, “needing to be peeled and eaten the moment the urge ripened.” Jack is madly in love; Celeste considerably less so, since she “couldn’t imagine remaining attracted to him beyond fifteen at the latest.”

That’s where Nutting diverges most from the Lolita script, since Humbert is infatuated with the object of his affections; his feelings about Lolita are complex, so his tenderness and longing complicate our view of his calculating sociopathy. Celeste remains a “soulless pervert” whom we listen to “with a curious revulsion, the same way one might watch a cow give birth.” She remains largely unreflective about her fixation on boys. Jack isn’t particularly well-delineated or interesting, and the setting is so generic that the novel might as well be called Akron.

Nutting could have updated the Lolita story to examine gender bias in our reaction to statutory rape charges and how such cases play out in the public sphere. But the novel’s coda is rushed, and Nutting plays the consequences mostly for laughs.

There’s nothing wrong with laughing about taboo subjects, but Nutting doesn’t get the tone right. That’s a shame, because she’s capable of knockout writing. A middle-aged jogger has a “caffeinated ponytail, which was perched in the top center of her skull like a plume on the hat of a Napoleonic infantryman.” A student’s nervous mother has an expression “of squeezed panic, like a ferret dressed up in a miniature corset.” Most of the ample sex scenes, however, are not funny, titillating or particularly revealing. They provoke a reaction best captured by a word favored by novel’s eighth graders: Eeewww.

Lisa Zeidner reviewed this book for The Washington Post.

Read more Books stories from the Miami Herald

  • What are you reading now?

    “I just finished A. Scott Berg’s biography of Woodrow Wilson, which was excellent. Now I’m into Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Bully Pulpit. They both fill in a big hole in American history for me.”

  •  
 <span class="cutline_leadin">Updike.</span> Adam Begley. Harper. 576 pages. $29.99.

    Biography

    Biography offers an enlightening view of John Updike’s work

    Biography offers an enlightening view of his work

  •  
 <span class="cutline_leadin">A TRUST BETRAYED:</span> The Untold Story of Camp Lejeune and the Poisoning of Generations of Marines and Their Families. Mike Magner. Da Capo. 299 pages. $27.50.

    Nonfiction

    Tiny victims of a conspiracy of silence

    One of the saddest places in America has to be the humble stretch of ground at a Jacksonville, N.C., cemetery called “Baby Heaven.” Paul Stasiak, a U.S. Marine, and his wife, Darrell, buried their stillborn daughter, Eileen Marie, there in September 1966.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category