Tom Perrotta explores the politics of suburbia once again in The Abstinence Teacher, an absorbing tale that pits the secular against the saved. Here, as in his previous works (including Election and Little Children), he fashions characters that defy predictability and whose inner dialogue is generally more gripping than the book's actual plot.
Divorced mom Ruth Ramsey is a high school sexual education teacher in Stonewood Heights, a leafy northeast 'burb whose freshly mown lawns you can almost smell coming off the pages. As the book opens, we find out that this liberal, free-talking instructor is being reined in by the conservative ranks after going one step too far in a classroom conversation about oral sex. Now she is forced to bow to an outrageously out-of-touch abstinence-only curriculum that goes against her every belief.
Tim Mason, soccer coach for Ruth's youngest daughter, is, on the surface, everything Ruth abhors. A born-again member of the local Tabernacle church, whose members helped squelch her classroom conversation, Tim infuriates Ruth by leading the soccer team in a post-game victory prayer. Thus begins their unusual relationship, born in conflict but slowly becoming something far more complex.
Tim is the book's most multifaceted character, a recovering drug addict and alcoholic who can't stop wrestling with his past and questioning his faith, even as he swears that Jesus has saved his life. But The Abstinence Teacher does sometimes go too far in driving its point home. Right after Ruth's work life and her younger daughter's soccer field are disrupted by religion, both daughters decide to start attending church. All of this Jesus-freaking at once seems a bit much. Perrotta also makes no secret of his own views. Many of the religious characters come across as vacant-eyed sheep, particularly the Tabernacle members. Can't a person have a strong faith and not be a complete drip? But despite its sometimes black-or-white viewpoint, The Abstinence Teacher is always entertaining.
Rebecca K. Stropoli writes from New York City.