Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Abstinence Teacher

Tom Perrotta, author of novels such as Election and Little Children (to name a few) recently published The Abstinence Teacher, the tale of Ruth Ramsey, a suburban mom and high school sex ed teacher, and her personal encounters with the religious right. As is happening in so much of the country, an evangelical church has sprouted up in her community; church members consider it part of their mission to correct what they see as the moral wrongs happening around them.

When Ruth is asked in class one day whether oral sex is like kissing a toilet she responds, in addition to providing some explanatory health and hygiene information, that “some people like it,” and soon finds herself in a public maelstrom about what is appropriate sex education curriculum for high schoolers.

Perrotta provides all of this as back story, focusing the majority of his book on Ruth’s second encounter with the Tabernacle’s faithful. Her younger daughter is a star on her soccer team, but when the team’s coach, Tim, leads the girls in a post-game prayer, Ruth confronts him. Ruth is already exhausted from being the public face fighting against the overly zealous, and Tim is a recovering addict clinging to his newfound religion to keep him sober.

As with all of Perrotta’s books, The Abstinence Teacher is well written and remarkably readable. But, like his others, he doesn’t push beyond the surface of the story enough to deeply affect the reader. His topic is clearly timely, but he takes the easy way out by making Tim doubt his own convictions a little too much. It’s clear where Perrotta stands on the issue of religious extremism, and he never gives us a three-dimensional character who persuasively advocates for embracing the presence of Christianity in all parts of life. While my convictions happen to fall nicely in step with Perrotta’s and those of his leading lady, the book would have been more powerful if Perrotta had provided a more compelling counterbalance.