Ben Babcock's Reviews > The Abstinence Teacher

The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta
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Nov 24, 2008

did not like it
bookshelves: from-library, not-my-cup-of-tea, 2008-read, 2008-worst10
Read in November, 2008

While the theme might be interesting, this book did not live up to my expectations. The changes the main characters underwent seemed rough and somewhat arbitrary, as if they were changing because the author wanted them to change for the purposes of the plot rather than through their own internal motivation. Tom Perrotta's writing style does nothing to rescue me from this plot-driven drivel. Don't get me wrong: this book has its moments; they are just few and far between.

The Abstinence Teacher begins by introducing us to Ruth, a divorced mom who's the sexual education teacher at the high school in this small, conservative town. She's under siege at school for wanting to teach safe sex instead of just abstinence. Meanwhile, she picks fights with her younger daughter's soccer coach, a born-again evangelical Christian, for leading the team in a prayer after a game. And she neglects her older daughter, which drives that daughter to seek meaning through--you guessed it--Christianity. Oh, and she wants to find a man. And she's friends with a gay couple.

I'm not making this up.

See, that's my problem with this novel: it's too contrived. I say too contrived because I realize that most novels, especially ones with overt thematic agendas like this one, need to be contrived to an extent. Perrotta has gone further than that, however, because he weaves sexuality into every aspect of the book and uses stereotypes like "the gay couple" to advance his theme. Others may not have a problem with this, but I found it awkward and artificial.

After getting to know Ruth, suddenly the book switches cameras to follow her daughter's soccer coach, Tim. Tim has problems: a former drug addict and reformed alcoholic, he credits Jesus with his salvation. Good so far--pretty believable. But he just can't shake Ruth from his mind, and eventually temptation rears its ugly head (heads?), forcing him to take advice from the spirited evangelical pastor of their local uber-conservative church.

Pastor Dennis is a great character, actually. Perrotta makes it clear that Dennis has a radical agenda on his mind and isn't above using radical means to advance it. It also helps set Pastor Dennis up as the real antagonist, thus allowing us to sympathize with Tim and his struggle to discern some sort of "truth" from the mess of life.

We experience a major portion, if not the majority of the book, following Tim's perspective before jumping back to Ruth, and then ultimately interspersing Ruth- and Tim-centric chapters. This works well, allowing us to see how each perceives the other and how each interprets shared experiences.

Unfortunately, Perrotta has certain other idiosyncrasies that made it hard for me to enjoy his writing. He has a tendency to introduce every single minor character with an appositive that sums them up in a trite little stereotype. I started noticing this about halfway through, and then it annoyed me for the rest of the book. Sometimes minor characters are just minor characters, Tom. We don't need to know about their favourite sexual positions....

Alas, it's an interesting concept, and one that is apparently relevant in contemporary American society. Yet I just could not enjoy it. I suspect, however, that others may like the book for the very reason I disliked it, so your mileage may vary.
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