The Short Version: Celeste Price is a sexy young eighth-grade teacher, cruising for a new sexual partner with whom to have an affair. She picks her target, seduces him, and begins a nearly year-long binge of sexual hedonism – one her husband knows nothing about. The thing is? Her lover is one of her fourteen-year-old students.
The Review: The ARC for Tampa showed up this weekend with (as you can see) a big “CAUTION: EXPLICIT CONTENT” sticker smacked on the bottom, as though this was the new Eminem album or something and this was the late 90s, when those things actually made objects seem taboo. But I give Harper/Ecco props – they’re clearly trying to sell this book based on its racy, explicit, downright disturbing nature. I don’t think they intend to put that sticker on the hardcover but maybe they should, for the heck of it – guaranteed to get people to pick it up for at least a look, that’s for sure.
Readers, reviewers, and publicity people will read this book and equate Celeste with our rarer literary monsters, like Humbert Humbert or Patrick Bateman (whose novel gets trotted out in the advance blurb, setting up unfair comparisons). They’re not wrong, I don’t think – her sociopathic, single-minded pursuit of sex (with barely-pubescent minors) and sex (with barely-pubescent minors) alone is both monstrous and captivating to a reader – but the thing is, Celeste never really achieves a richness as a character to be placed into that twisted pantheon. She feels – indeed, the whole book feels (with one exception, which I’ll come to) brushed with the broadest strokes. She is Really Attractive and seems to have all of the characteristics you would expect from a Sociopathic Attractive Woman. Her husband is Rich, Boorish, and Dumb. The one major supporting female character, another teacher at Celeste’s school, is A Middle-Aged Mess. They all just feel very capital letters and Nutting never does anything to make them seem more interesting.
Of course, even a cursory read of the first ten or fifteen pages will tell you: that’s not the point. She doesn’t intend to make these characters seem interesting – she just needs to get them fully formed enough to engage the reader to get to the sex bits. Because for a book about a pedophile, the sex is (as, I’ll admit, it was at times in Lolita) downright erotic. And good lord is there a lot of it. In fact, although it’s being marketed as lit fic, I’d really honestly put this book in erotica. There is a LOT of sex and it is graphically described. Celeste sets out to seduce her target, succeeds…. and then it’s sex, in lots of places and lots of styles. Nominally there is a plot – trying to keep this a secret from the boy’s father, from her husband, from the world at large – but that really seems to be a secondary consideration to the sex scenes. Hell, major plot points (if they can be said to be that…) usually turn on sex and sexual manipulation. This would be interesting if the reader wasn’t pretty numbed to it by about page 100.
The thing is, Nutting is doing something interesting here.
(SPOILERS may ensue beyond this point – there’s not a lot to spoil, but just giving fair warning.)
We rarely see a female pedophile in literature – although it seems that there’ve been plenty of young teachers with a taste for their young students. And, at the trial (because, obviously, that was where this book was headed in one way or another) at the end of the book, one of Celeste’s young paramours seems to want to brag about it – and wouldn’t you? I don’t know a straight boy who hasn’t had some fantasy, at some point, about a teacher – hell, one of the best Van Halen songs of all time is “Hot For Teacher”. It’s a tried-and-true fantasy – and Nutting dances around the issue just enough to get readers thinking/talking. These boys might not be “mature”, but what does that mean, exactly? Are they being taken advantage of by Celeste in a predatory manner? Or are they just living the dream? You want to say, “No, she’s a sex offender, you can’t do that with kids under 18” – but the fact that you’ve paused to consider before knee-jerk spouting that societally-enforced response means that Nutting has scored a palpable hit.
The problem for me is that it came too late. It’s only in the last 50 or so pages that she takes any sort of stab at dealing with the actual issues beyond presenting the reader with some pretty hot sex scenes, which just happen to be between a 14-year-old and a 26-year-old. But once Celeste is caught (in a pretty contrived sequence of events leading to a truly impossible breakdown of all common sense), then we’ve got the whole issue of a trial and people asking her “why” and I suppose this is where the Bateman comparisons come in because she’s still thinking about sex and just responds that it’s what she likes – there’s no remorse, no apparent understanding that what she’s done is/was/continues to be wrong. And that’s a fine choice to make – but don’t deprive the reader of a literary forum where these issues are going to be hashed out. The trial slips by in the blink of an eye and the end of the book finds Celeste living a new, lower-key life – and still cruising for boys when and how she can. It’s the last page where she brings up the fact that she’s only going to get older and it’ll become more difficult for her to succeed at this game in her late 30s, 40s, 50s, etc – that is an interesting thought, no? The hot young teacher screwing a student is more titillating but also, for whatever strange reason, a touch more acceptable than an older woman screwing a student – isn’t it? What does that sliding scale of morality mean (this is bad, but that’s slightly less bad than this) and how are we supposed to feel at the end of this book?
Rating: 3 out of 5. I walked away numb, to be honest. Celeste’s sexual rapaciousness definitely provides some intense reading – and Nutting does a far better job at capturing sex than most authors (I sure hope Harper does something like “hey housewives, you think Fifty Shades was hot?”) could ever hope to do. But what are we, as readers, supposed to take away / think about with this book? The sexy sex-times – or the fact that our main character is a sociopathic, pedophilic sex addict? Celeste Price, while as bad as they come, just isn’t bad enough to be memorable.