The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta
The premise of Perrotta's new book pits a liberal sex ed teacher against a fundamentalist church, and the whole thing sounds too easy and ripped from the headlines to be any good. But I know better than to underestimate Perrotta's ability to mine the suburban wasteland, and somehow come up with fascinating nuggets of human drama every time.
For over a decade, Ruth Ramsey has prided herself on her frank manner of demystifying sex for the confused adolescents in her charge. But when a student from the Tabernacle compares oral sex to "French-kissing a toilet seat," Ruth's reply unleashes an evangelical maelstrom, complete with threats of a lawsuit. And as a result, Ruth finds herself strapped with a factually shoddy abstinence-based curriculum and a perky "Virginity Consultant," who I swear, you'll just want to slap.
Being a chastened educator, a divorced mother, and a middle aged woman who still looks good in a miniskirt and drinks on school nights makes Ruth a morally dubious figure by Stonewood Heights standards, and she's outraged about being persecuted by the religious right and abandoned by the town's like-minded citizens. So, when her daughter's soccer coach gathers the girls together to pray after a game, she snaps, and drags Maggie out of the circle.
Perrotta uses the ensuing confrontation with the soccer coach to switch the book's focus to his story. Tim is a former bassist and addict who hit rock bottom and found peace and redemption at the Tabernacle. The books finds Tim at a spiritual crossroad, dissatisfied with his new marriage to a spineless Tabernacle member nearly half his age and at odds with his church's forays into the political fray.
Tim and Ruth's complicated feelings about each other are interesting, but more time is spent dwelling on the events in Tim's past, and the temptations that threaten his faith and sobriety. Perrotta's depiction of Tim is thoughtful and complex, but I looked forward to the moments when the story returned to Ruth's adventures in single mom dating and abstinence training.
However, The Abstinence Teacher is filled with great character interactions and scenes that get the blood up, and like all of Perrotta's books, it's an exceedingly amiable read.
If you like...: even-handed books about evangelical Christian characters like Anne Tyler's Saint Maybe or portrayals of small town domestic life that don't descend into boring middle aged malaise like Empire Falls by Richard Russo, this book is for you.