Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Abstinence Teacher

I picked up
Little Children in the bargain books section, and I had heard that it was being made into a movie starring my soulmate, so I read it and I was blown away. The combination of eloquent prose, deeply drawn characters, satire and heart was a perfect cocktail for me. I think I read it in about two days. So when Tom Perrotta's follow-up was released, The Abstinence Teacher, I had to read it.

Ruth Ramsey is a forty-something divorced teacher of Sex Education at a local high school in a suburb town. When she makes a gaffe of saying that some people actually enjoy oral sex, the religious right of the town comes down and forces the school to institute a curriculum of abstinence, going against Ruth's personal beliefs and teaching style. At the same time, Ruth's daughter's soccer coach, Tim Mason is a born again Christian from a lifetime of sex drugs and rock n roll who made the gaffe of getting the soccer team to pray after a meeting. Both characters deal with the different fallouts of their mistakes in different ways, and slowly come to a realization about their own lives.

This sort of follows the same kind of pattern as
Little Children, in that we're examining the social and sexual lives of suburbia in a more harsh light, by examining two major characters up close, who ultimately circle around each other and end up having an encounter of some type. Unlike the previous novel, The Abstinence Teacher is more interested in the crossroads between sexuality and religion, where they intersect and diverge.

But Perrotta doesn't make an easy conclusions. He takes his time slowly building and developing Ruth and Tim until their decisions and actions become organic and ultimately predetermined by their personality and history. It's not fate that drives Tim and Ruth to what they end up doing, but they're own selves. It's a big credit to Perrotta as a character-builder that this happens. Not all writers can manage that.

Some of the big themes that are examined in this novel include the religious right and their morality in proselytizing the masses. Perrotta examines the rightness from both sides of the argument and - it seems to me - ends up agreeing with Ruth, that it's unacceptable. I think that Perrotta concludes that the fundamentalist movement is filled with self-denial and delusion. The major church that populates the novel ends up being an empty stage-y circus, rather than the holy building of God.

Both major characters, Ruth and Tim, are forced by circumstances to repeat and teach things they don't believe in. With Ruth, she teaches abstinence; with Tim, it's the word of God that he can't quite get behind. While the title of the novel refers to Ruth, it's really Tim that the novel is about and his crisis of faith. He can't find a way to fit into the church, but he's invested so much that he can't extricate himself.

I really enjoyed this novel almost as much as reading
Little Children. This was heartbreaking, funny, interesting, satirical and witty. It's deft at handling the different tones and the different moral arguments that make up the core character conflict. While not the final say on religion in suburbia, nor a final say in anything, this is a terrifically entertaining novel by a great writer. Highly recommended.

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