I approached The Abstinence Teacher with some trepidation. I’ve been eager to read something by Tom Perrotta since seeing the film Little Children, which was based on an earlier novel of his. However, the central conflict of this book, the culture clash between conservative evangelical Christians and their liberal neighbors, gave me pause. Would Perrotta actually depict the conservative evangelicals as well-rounded people? Or would he resort to the all-too-common tendency to treat them as weird curiosities who cannot hold a rational thought in their head?
The story centers on Ruth and Tim, both New England suburban parents. Ruth is the sex education teacher at the local high school who, after making a controversial remark about oral sex in class, is told that she must now teach an abstinence-based curriculum. Tim is a former drug addict and rock musician who found Jesus and joined the church that has gone after Ruth. The coach of a soccer team that includes Ruth’s daughter, Tim finds himself embroiled in his own controversy when he leads the girls on the team in prayer after a game.
Despite the title, sex (or non-sex) education is not the book’s major focus. The book is really about how people deal with change—change in their communities, in their families, and even within themselves. As changes occur around and within them, both Ruth and Tim are forced to reexamine beliefs they hold dear. Ruth has always seen herself as a parent who would let her daughters be who they want to be. Can she do this when they decide they want to follow Jesus? Tim, on the other hand, knows that his faith helped him kick his drug habit, but it hasn’t done much to curb his lust for his now remarried ex-wife or help him be a better husband to his new wife. Will he decide that God doesn’t have the answers at all?
I fully expected that Ruth would come out as the enlightened heroine who knows what’s best for the community and that Tim would acknowledge her superiority by jumping into bed with her. It seems rare to find a contemporary novel in which both liberals and conservatives are given room to be both flawed and noble, and Perrotta seems to be of a liberal bent so I assumed Ruth would come out ahead. Well, I like seeing judgmental people get their comeuppance as well as anyone does, but isn’t that plot kind of old? I am, however, pleased to report that Perrotta allows both characters to be who they are and to change in sometimes unexpected ways. And the end of the novel leaves enough loose ends that readers can draw their own conclusions about where the characters ultimately end up.
Readers looking for original insights into the cultural conflict at the heart of the book won’t find them here. For the most part, the characters use the same arguments that those who follow these debates have already heard. The arguments in fact are so unoriginal that the dialogue borders on cliche. The supporting characters also rarely rise above a one-dimensional characterization. Most seem to represent types, rather than fully formed people.
Perrotta is probably best known for tendency toward satire—and this book does include some great comic moments. Ruth’s remedial course in teaching the abstinence curriculum made me laugh out loud. But there are also some touching scenes, like Tim’s revelation at a men’s rally near the end of the novel—a scene that I admit to being moved by partly because I saw echoes of my own life there.
Others I know who read this book complained about its too-sudden conclusion and were annoyed by the cliched characters. These are valid critiques, but I was so pleasantly surprised by the direction that the plot took that I could see past these flaws. Had the book been overly long or preachy, I don’t think I could have overlooked its problems, but Perrotta avoids these particular traps and offers what I found to be a worthwhile reading experience.