Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Dangerous obsession

Steamy illicit affair between teacher and student forms novel's controversial core

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If a male middle school teacher had sex with a girl in Grade 8, there'd be no question it was exploitative.

But when a female teacher preys on a 14- or 15-year-old boy, why are there high-fives all around the football locker room?

Female teachers coupling with male students make headlines if they have been involved in sexual relationships, perhaps because, as far as we know, this abuse of power is less common than males going after younger girls.

In this confidently transgressive debut novel, American creative writing professor (at an Ohio Jesuit university, no less) and short-story writer Alissa Nutting delves into the mind of a 26-year-old junior high teacher, Celeste, in Tampa, Fla., where the age of consent is 18.

Although the novel's consummation, so to speak, is somewhat unbelievable, it is impossible to abandon the suspenseful story. (That said, its explicit nature could offend many readers.)

Nutting doesn't waste any time in jumping right into a description of Celeste's arousal the night before she starts her first full-time teaching job. Narrating in the first person, Celeste is so turned on by the prospect of all of the young boys she will be teaching, she masturbates all night.

It so happens that her husband, Ford, is asleep beside her. Ford, a police officer, is utterly repugnant to her; she numbs herself with drugs and cheap wine before indulging his desire.

Reading Nutting's highly charged account of Celeste's inner state and her eventual intense sexual relationship with Jack Patrick, a 14-year-old in her classroom, you may find yourself flipping back to the author's picture on the flap. It's hard to imagine that such a sweet-faced woman could imagine this story.

Celeste and Jack's encounters are frankly and, shall we say, creatively, portrayed, giving the novel a slightly pornographic feel. Keep reminding yourself of the age difference between the two; if not, you may find Nutting's writing style a real turn-on.

Goodness knows, there are lots of novels about young men being sexually initiated by older women. One thinks of the Hungarian-Canadian Stephen Vizinczey's 1965 scandalous success, In Praise of Older Women.

Nor is Nutting the first female to attempt erotic literature. She is in the company of Anais Nin and, more recently, E.L. James.

Nutting writes with a sense of humour that is hard to resist, though. Celeste's actions are sometimes so stereotypically seductive that they are ridiculous.

After quickly singling out her classroom target, she reaches "up to the nape of (her) neck" and shakes out her long blond hair, licking the pencil's lead.

The tactic seems to work on the boy, who falls in love with her and even becomes a bit possessive. She, however, sees him only as a vessel to satisfy her own needs.

Excitingly paced, Tampa tends to degenerate a bit in style toward the end, becoming difficult to believe; however, Nutting manages to maintain the intensity until the final page. The conclusion is a small flaw in an otherwise innovative and well-written tale of a young woman's obsession.

But is Tampa really about sex? Or is it about needing to feel attractive and sexually fulfilled?

Or is it about power (something about which there would be little question if the genders were reversed)? Or maybe it's about exploitation or genuine affection?

Tampa explores this ethical issue through a vivid depiction of one woman's motivation and actions, which ultimately may lead to her undoing.

Elizabeth Hopkins is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 6, 2013 A1

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