Has the shadow of Fifty Shades of Grey has made its mark on literary fiction? Not that non-genre fiction with erotic elements is anything new—Tropic of Cancer, anyone?—but two books coming in July are certain to push both boundaries and buttons.
Susan Choi’s fourth novel, My Education (Viking), is the story of 21-year-old Regina, who is accepted to a graduate program at a prestigious university. Her seminar professor, Nicholas Brodeur, is known for his less-than-savory behavior toward students, and Regina prides herself on not falling for his lures. But in escaping one unwise liaison she falls into another: An illicit, passionate relationship with Nicholas’ wife, Martha.
“You know exactly what I’m doing,” I said crossly, so irked by her tone that for a moment my fear was forgotten and sinking my hand in her heavy blond hair I took hold of the hot, perspiration-damp slope of the nape of her neck, and raised my chin slightly and drew her toward me, for she was the slightest bit, perhaps a finger’s width, taller—I’d been right, she had known—the thought came to me but could not be completed as my tongue filled her mouth and we bloomed smoothly out of our skins as if some gorgeous fruit that aspires to devour itself.
Ahem, dot dot dot. Let’s just say neither of these books are for those who shy away from vivid descriptions of what happens in the bedroom (and the greenhouse, and the front seat of a Corvette, etc.). Choi, whose second novel, American Woman, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, has created flawed protagonists before—the introverted and jealousy-prone Professor Lee in A Person of Interest, for example—but Regina’s wholehearted plunge into an obviously toxic relationship can be hard to read about. Still, Choi’s ability to portraying all-consuming desire unflinchingly, with skillful writing, should carry readers through.
I’d hazard a guess that a significant number of readers will put Tampa (Ecco) down after reading a few pages. An equally significant portion will be staying up all night to finish it. The first novel from Nutting (following the short story collection Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls), Tampa is told from the point of view of Celeste, a stunning, married 26-year-old middle school teacher with a handsome and devoted husband, Ford. Problem is, he’s not her type.
I should find Ford needlessly attractive; everyone else does. “He’s too good looking,” one of my sorority sisters groaned the night after our first double date back in college. “I can’t even look at him without feeling like I’m being punched between my legs.” My real problem with Ford is actually his age. Like most women who marry for money, my husband is far too old. Being twenty-six myself, it’s true that he and I are close peers. But thirty-one is roughly seventeen years past my window of sexual interest.
Tampa is impressive in its total commitment to telling a story in the voice of a character that the reader can’t help but be repelled by. (Warning: As mentioned above, there are some very explicit scenes.) Celeste is a sociopath, utterly without remorse and completely driven by her desire for pre-pubescent boys. As she cold-heartedly lays out her plan to seduce what she sees as her most vulnerable and most desirable student, it’s like being hypnotized by a cobra. Is the novel smart and subversive, or simply purient? Watercooler chat for sure.