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Celeste Price is a beautiful 26-year-old woman who is unhappily married to Ford, an alcoholic police officer with a wealthy family. She is secretly a hebephile, and has constructed her life to facilitate the pursuit of fourteen-year-old boys. The novel opens just before her first day as an English teacher at Jefferson Junior High, where she plans to seduce a student.
Celeste sets her sights on a shy student of hers named Jack Patrick. She repeatedly directs classroom discussion towards sexual matters, and begins to groom Jack by keeping him after class to discuss Romeo and Juliet, which the class is reading.
Celeste discovers Jack's address and drives to his house. As she hides in her car she masturbates to Jack doing mundane things in the windows. One night she watches him masturbate in his bedroom. When Jack comes to class the next day, she keeps him after class. She fabricates a story that she accidentally saw him when she was driving home after visiting a friend in the area. Jack is humiliated, but Celeste tells him that she is attracted to him and the two begin a relationship.
A week later, Celeste picks up Jack, who has told his father he would be working on a school project with some friends. Celeste and Jack drive to a wooded area where Celeste takes Jack's virginity. Later that night, Ford drags Celeste on a double date with his friends. Celeste ignores them, distracted by fantasies about Jack. On the ride home a drunk Ford criticizes Celeste for her behavior and for her apparent disgust towards him. During the argument, Ford violently grabs Celeste's arm.
Jack and Celeste begin meeting at his house on days when his father is at work. She tells him about Ford (leaving out that he is a cop), the rules of their relationship, and restates that he and she can't talk on anything other than the burner phone Celeste gave him. During the visits, Celeste begins to be increasingly annoyed by Jack's wants for an emotional relationship. He suggests it through poems he writes her, asking her to say that she loves him, and insinuating the two can be publicly together when he is eighteen, a thought that revolts Celeste.
The secret rendezvous at Jack's home work well until one day when Jack's father Buck comes home earlier than expected. Buck is a middle-aged divorcé and almost immediately begins hitting on Celeste. He invites her to stay for dinner and she reluctantly agrees. During dinner Celeste gropes Jack under the table and Buck makes several poor attempts to woo her.
Celeste takes Jack to the movies, where he suggests that she lead Buck on so she could visit more often. At first, Celeste doubts the feasibility of Jack's plan due to his lack of knowledge about adult relationships, but he eventually convinces her that it's worth a try after he tells her she can do whatever she wants with him.
Jack's plan is a success. Celeste leads on Buck, but does not have sex with him. Because Buck gives her a key, Celeste visits Jack more frequently. However, her energy at home is drained from dates with Buck, and she becomes more irritated with Ford and refuses sex with him; in response, he begins insisting on masturbating in her presence.
Before Jack leaves Tampa to visit his mother over Christmas break, Celeste arranges a visit in a mall restroom. Jack voices how threatened he feels by Buck's interest in Celeste, which she finds humorous.
One day before the start of the spring semester, Buck unexpectedly returns home early and walks in on Celeste and Jack performing food play. In order to distract Buck, Celeste leads him up to the bedroom, where she initiates sex with him. She nearly vomits during the encounter. Jack accidentally sees the pair having sex and runs off to his bedroom. Afterwards, she is unable to say goodbye to him or explain what happened. At home later that night, she is bombarded with calls from Jack, which she ignores.
Before class with Jack the next day, Celeste becomes increasingly paranoid. She fears that Buck was bribing Jack into pimping her to him or that Jack killed him out of anger, making her an accessory to murder. Jack arrives to class, but is angry at Celeste, assuming that she wanted to sleep with Buck all along. She tries to convince Jack that she is uninterested in Buck, but he remains skeptical. The two embark in painful, unsatisfying anal sex. Afterward, Jack snaps a picture of Celeste naked, which is against the rules that she set up. She lets him keep the photo with the intention of taking his phone when he isn't looking and deleting it later.
Celeste and Jack continue to have sex, but he is still upset and is worried about being caught again by Buck. Celeste is unable to get off due to Jack's fear of being caught by his father. She proposes they drug Buck; Jack is hesitant but eventually agrees. Celeste manages to spike Buck's wine at dinner with the same drugs she uses to knock herself out during sex with Ford. She and Jack drag him up to his bedroom, where they have sex in front of the unconscious Buck.
On Valentine's Day, Celeste takes Jack to a rollerskating rink. They dry-hump by a claw machine, but are interrupted by a small child. Afterward, Jack gives Celeste a card, which she promptly destroys.
When Celeste is at Jack's house, Buck returns home unexpectedly and witnesses them having sex. She goes into the hallway, setting herself up for sex with Buck, only to discover he has had a heart attack. He realizes her true nature as she watches him die without helping him. She walks into Jack's room and asks him to fondle her breasts before breaking the news to him. He runs from the room, during which time she tries and fails to find the nude photo he took on his phone. When he returns to the room distraught, she performs oral sex on him, then instructs him to wait half an hour before calling emergency services. She asks for his burner phone and to move Buck's car so she can move hers out of the garage. She arrives home to find Ford, who tells her his schedule was changed and asks where she had been. Celeste lies that she had gone to dinner with her coworkers.
After two weeks of truancy, Jack phones Celeste from his father's house and asks her to visit him after school. She is skeptical at first, but goes anyway. Jack is despondent, and reveals that after he finishes the school year he will have to move in with his mother in Crystal Springs. Celeste is disappointed with the reunion and coerces him into sex by convincing him it will make him feel better. After sex, Jack returns to his sullen state. He bleakly announces that they murdered Buck; Celeste argues with him, but knows he is right.
Over summer vacation, Celeste becomes increasingly frustrated. Jack manages to visit her occasionally, but she is uninterested in dealing with his emotional troubles, and begins planning out how to end the relationship. Ford's new schedule means they are spending a great deal of time together, though she tries hard to avoid it. Ford plans a getaway to his father's beach house, which Celeste goes through with, fantasizing about the new students to choose from in the upcoming school year.
When school starts again, Celeste selects another student, Boyd, as Jack's replacement. Boyd is not as shy as Jack, and Celeste is concerned about his ability to be discreet, but his enthusiasm turns her on and their sexual relationship progresses rapidly. Unlike Jack, Boyd's parents are married, and his mother is a stay-at-home mom, so they primarily meet at Buck's abandoned house for privacy. She also continues her relationship with Jack, keeping both boys in the dark about each other.
One night while Celeste and Boyd are at Buck's house, Jack suddenly appears and attacks Boyd, giving him a serious head wound that gets blood on all three of them. Jack berates Celeste, having finally realized the truth about her, and then runs off. She grabs a knife and runs outside after him, naked and covered in Boyd's blood.
Police arrive and take Celeste in for questioning. The nude photo on Jack's SIM card is discovered, and she is accused of molesting the boys. The interrogation is interrupted by an attorney hired by Ford's family. Celeste is told that she must apologize to Ford publicly (and is offered $15,000 if she weeps).
The case becomes a media circus, and Celeste publicly plays the role of a young, innocent woman desperate for affection. At the trial, the defense argues that Celeste is too attractive to go to prison. One night during the trial, Ford arrives drunk at Celeste's cell to confront her, trying to make sense of their relationship, but she rebuffs him and he leaves in tears, never seeing her again.
Boyd and Jack are called to the stand at the trial the next day. Boyd's testimony about their relationship is over-eager, which helps the defense case by making the relationship look consensual. Jack answers questions briefly, crying, while Celeste suppresses disgust at his appearance, which has matured during his year in juvenile detention. He and Celeste share a look at each other one last time. The next day, the prosecution offers Celeste a plea bargain: she is placed on probation for four years, cannot go near a school or spend any unsupervised time with minors, and has to attend group meetings.
A year later, Celeste is given permission to move to a different town, where she gets an under-the-table job at a cabana bar under a fake name. She frequents the beach, having sex with teenage boys vacationing with their families at a nearby hotel. She constantly thinks about Boyd and Jack, but is disgusted at the thought of them nearing adulthood. In order to stay aroused by their memory, she fantasizes that, on the night Jack discovered her with Boyd, Boyd had died from his injuries and that she finally caught up to Jack and murdered him.
Tampa is the debut novel of Alissa Nutting, an essayist and creative writing professor whose first book was the 2010 short story collection Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls. Nutting was inspired by Debra Lafave, a Tampa teacher charged with having sex with her middle school students in 2013. Nutting went to high school with LeFave; seeing someone she knew on the news raised her awareness of the issue of female predators and changed her mind about the reality of underage male rape.
- Emine Saner. "Tampa: the most controversial book of the summer". the Guardian. Retrieved 18 November 2014.
- Emine Saner. "Tampa: the most controversial book of the summer". the Guardian. Retrieved 18 November 2014.
- "Book World: 'Tampa' fumbles with a taboo". Washington Post. Retrieved 2014-07-07.
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- Jagernauth, Kevin (26 August 2016). "Harmony Korine Adapting Controversial Novel 'Tampa,' Says New Florida Set Movie Will Shoot Next". theplaylist.net. Retrieved 5 October 2016.