The Abstinence Teacher
There is probably no one writing today who is a more astute guide to the world of soccer moms, Lexus SUVs and McMansions than Tom Perrotta. Fresh from the success of his novel LITTLE CHILDREN --- made into a critically and commercially successful film --- he has returned with another dead-on depiction of life in our affluent subdivisions and shopping malls that might have been entitled “Sexual Dysfunction in Suburbia.”
Unlike one of his literary forebears, John Updike, who shocked Americans with his frank depictions of suburban sexual morality in his 1968 novel COUPLES, Perrotta is content to leave most of the sex offstage. In what feels like a striking commentary on the changes in American culture since the late 1960s, Perrotta’s characters seem as if they’d be happier curled up in a sweatsuit with a mug of hot chocolate and a good book than romping between the sheets.
Ruth Ramsey, a 42-year-old divorced mother of two adolescent girls, teaches high school sex education in the town of Stonewood Heights, a suburban community in an unidentified New England state. When Ruth comments, in a classroom discussion of oral sex, that “some people enjoy it,” pressure from a fundamentalist church, the Tabernacle of the Gospel Truth, leads the school board to adopt an abstinence education program called “Wise Choices for Teens.” Overseen by a “Virginity Consultant” named JoAnn Marlow, who “wasn’t just blond and pretty; she was hot and she knew it,” the program compels a reluctant Ruth to preach the abstinence message to her students.
Ruth comes into further conflict with the evangelical Christians of Stonewood Heights when, at her fifth-grade daughter Maggie’s soccer game, the team’s coach, Tim Mason --- himself a divorced father and a member of the Tabernacle (“the Nuthouse," as his ex-wife describes it) --- spontaneously leads the team in a post-game prayer. Ruth is so incensed by the incident that she threatens to write a letter to the commissioner of the soccer league demanding Tim’s firing. When word of her plan reaches him, he pleads with her to give him another chance and she relents.
Throughout the rest of the novel, Ruth does her best to subvert the success of the abstinence curriculum. When she challenges the veracity of the program’s statistics on condom failure rates and directs her students to more accurate information on the Planned Parenthood website, she is compelled to attend “special Saturday reinforcement sessions” that are a cross between John Hughes’s “Breakfast Club” and Communist Chinese re-education programs.
Meanwhile, Tim, a former rock guitarist whose struggles with alcohol and drugs and an extramarital affair torpedoed his first marriage, wrestles with his newly found religiosity. Gradually, he and Ruth move toward a mutual understanding that, in Perrotta’s optimistic view, offers hope that the gap between clashing worldviews somehow can be bridged.
One of the chief pleasures of THE ABSTINENCE TEACHER is that Perrotta is as deft with one-liners as any skilled stand-up comic. Describing the high school students of Stonewood Heights, he writes that “most of them would readily admit that they were a lot more focused on getting into a good college than the Kingdom of Heaven.” And the raucous scene in which the Tabernacle’s Pastor Dennis receives a revelation that transforms him from a Best Buy clerk into one who believes he has been called to preach the gospel, while he destroys thousands of dollars of electronic equipment in the process, is pure hilarity.
If Perrotta's novel has any failing, it lies in his marked reluctance to turn up the heat on his characters by placing them in situations of unavoidable conflict. At times it appears he is almost too sympathetic to their plight and backs off just at the moment when a more daring author might revel in the opportunity to make them suffer, if only for comic effect. One longs for the tension a writer as accomplished as Perrotta could have created had he imagined the placid town of Stonewood Heights torn apart by controversy over the abstinence curriculum or the soccer team prayer. Instead he opts for a quieter, more internal novel that feels, in the end, as if it could have been much more.
Despite this, THE ABSTINENCE TEACHER remains a witty and engaging look at social mores in contemporary suburbia. In it, Perrotta demonstrates once again his knack for holding a mirror up to our lives and allowing us to see how we’re living them.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org) on January 7, 2011
The Abstinence Teacher
- Publication Date: September 2, 2008
- Genres: Fiction
- Paperback: 384 pages
- Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
- ISBN-10: 0312363540
- ISBN-13: 9780312363543