THE ABSTINENCE TEACHER by Tom Perrotta

Perrotta I just finished Tom Perrotta’s The Abstinence Teacher, which is my favorite so far of all of his books. (Back in 2006, I talked about the other Perrotta novels that I had read, including The Wishbones, Joe College, and Little Children.) The Abstinence Teacher, which takes on religious zeolatry, parenting, sex education and so much more, is a more ambitious novel than Perrotta’s others. It is written in that classic, sharply observant and mocking Perrotta style, but its scope is larger.

Ruth Ramsay is a divorced, 41 year-old sex ed teacher at fictional Stonewood Heights, an upper class suburb in an unnamed Northeastern state. She is targeted one day by some angry parents and the school board after she vaguely endorses oral sex to her students. This leads to several things – a campaign by the school board to introduce abstinence into the sex ed curriculum (over her objections); Ruth’s interactions with her daughter’s born-again Christian soccer coach, Tim, who leads the girls in prayer after a game; and Tim’s struggles with his church and his marriage.

Nothing escapes unscathed, or really, unobserved in this book. Perrotta has such a sharp eye that The Abstinence Teacher ultimately creates a finely detailed mosaic of our 2000s American existence, one that includes iPods and Priuses, gay marriage and drug addiction, Christian men’s retreats and Classmates.com.

Ruth and Tim are only the central characters in this rich, dimensional story. There’s also Ruth’s and Tim’s ex-spouses and their daughters, and her gay colleague Randall, and Pastor Dennis, the leader of Tim’s born-again church. Like Ruth and Tim, each of these characters is flawed, and infinitely interesting. The details in the book aren’t superfluous, but serve to flesh out these characters – literally – so that they become living, breathing people on Perrotta’s pages.

Who is good, and who is bad? In the end, Perrotta doesn’t really take a stand. He lampoons and humanizes both sides.

I liked this book quite a bit. It didn’t hurt that I listened to it on audio narrated by the sublime Campbell Scott. I wouldn’t complain if he narrated every single audiobook in the library. His deep voice, which verges on (but never reaches) flatness, was the perfect vehicle for Perrotta’s understate sarcasm and jabs. I especially enjoyed Scott’s narration of Pastor Dennis – just perfect.

I just read that The Abstinence Teacher, which was optioned back in 2007, may be made into a movie with Sandra Bullock and Steve Carell – which I find very odd casting.

Anyone else read this? Did you like it as much as I did?

8 Comments

  • January 28, 2011 - 12:40 pm | Permalink

    I am a big fan of this book. I read it a couple of years ago and it has definitely stayed with me. (At some point I posted a review on Amazon.) One aspect for which I give Perrotta a great deal of credit is his ability to handle ambiguous characters. It seems to me that authors need to be conscious of a spectrum: at one end are characters so predictable that they are stereotypes, and at the other are characters so unpredictable that they lack credibility. Many characters in Perrotta’s novel inhabit a deftly created gray area: like real people, they are ambiguous. They do things that surprise you and yet still seem plausible. It’s a model of which some other authors of popular fiction should take note.

  • Kelly Currie
    January 28, 2011 - 4:25 pm | Permalink

    I loved it also and agree that Perrotta is very skilled at drawing characters that are not black and white or cookie-cutter. I’ll admit that I started the book thinking I would be wholly on Ruth’s side and contemptuous of Tim, but at the end I didn’t feel that way at all. I was reminded again that the issues and the people who support and oppose them are complex and should be thoughtfully considered without rash and impulsive reactions.

  • Elisabeth
    January 28, 2011 - 5:33 pm | Permalink

    I, read this awhile ago, and remember enjoying it. the subject matter was different and something new. I also found this to be true of Sag Harbor which I read this summer. I am curious to see what you think of The False Friend by Myla Goldberg. I just finished listening to Wickett’s Remedy and I was very disappointed with the ending.

  • January 31, 2011 - 2:45 pm | Permalink

    I can’t believe I haven’t read this one yet. Perrotta is one of my favorite authors, and I’ve loved all of his books. I need to make time for this one soon.

  • February 1, 2011 - 12:00 am | Permalink

    @Nomadreader – you definitely should pick this one up. Especially if you’re already a Perrotta fan – you’ll like it.
    @Elisabeth – funny, I just started Sag Harbor on audio. I agree – it’s different. False Friend keeps getting bumped down the list.
    @Kelly and @Nancy – Totally agree – there is no black and white here.

  • February 1, 2011 - 7:43 am | Permalink

    My local bookstore has had this on clearance forever, and almost every time I’m in there I look at it but don’t buy it. Sounds like I’m going to the bookstore! Although…Campbell Scott is tempting. 🙂

  • February 6, 2011 - 9:53 pm | Permalink

    I have not read this or really anything by Tom Perrotta but after this review, I’m thinking I should. This book sounds absolutely fascinating to me.

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