Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta

Some people enjoy it. That was all Ruth had said. Even now, when she'd had months to come to terms with the fallout from this remark, she still marveled at the power of those four words, which she'd uttered without premeditation and without any sense of treading on forbidden ground.
"Oral sex is disgusting," Theresa declared, apropos of nothing. "You might as well French-kiss a toilet seat. You can get all sorts of nasty diseases right?"
Theresa stared straight at Ruth, as if daring her to challenge this incontrovertible fact. In retrospect, Ruth thought she should have been able to discern the hostile intent in the girl's unwavering gaze...but Ruth wasn't in the habit of thinking of her students as potential adversaries. If anything, she was grateful to the girl for creating what her grad school professors used to call a "teachable moment."
"Well," Ruth began, "from what I hear about oral sex, some people enjoy it."

This was the first Tom Perrotta novel I'd ever read. I've seen Election, but before I really ever cared about the books behind the popular films. So I can't tell you if this is true Perrotta, if all of his books are similar, or if this one was an aberration. So if you are a die-hard Perrott fan, don't hate when when I say I wasn't overly impressed by this book.

In "The Abstinence Teacher," Ruth Ramsay is a popular and well-informed sex ed teacher whose curriculum and professional career are threatened by parents from the new evangelical church in town who object to her frank honesty. After one family threatens suit over the incident above, Ruth finds herself both the target and unwilling ally in the school board's new plan, which includes a revamped abstinence-only curriculum and the hiring of JoAnn, the school's new Virginity Consultant.

Ruth's struggle with her feelings about denying her students the truth about contraception and safe sex, and her stagnant divorced-parent dating life, only make up one half of the book. At the beginning of part two, readers are introduced to Tim Mason, a former addict and born-again Christian who appreciates his new found home in the church while still having doubts about some of its tenets. The two meet on adversarial ground when Tim, who coaches Ruth's daughter's soccer team, initiates a team-wide prayer after one of the games.

Ruth and Tim's lives continue to cross in the book, and Perrotta uses an interesting narrative structure to do it. At first, their stories are completely separate, each getting an entire unit of introduction. As Ruth and Tim meet, talk about the prayer issue, and gradually forge the kind of friendship that is constantly fraught with sexual tension, the space allotted to each alone shrinks. By the end of the book, Perrotta is switching perspectives every paragraph, going back and forth to show Ruth and Tim's feelings about each other and the situation they find themselves in.

I read this book pretty fast. Actually I'm reading most books faster now that I am blogging. A few years ago, if I read a book really fast, it meant I really liked it. Now, I can efficiently get through a yawner book almost as fast as a one that's terrific. While I haven't found a great book that I haven't buzzed through, it doesn't go both ways. (If it did, I'd have to rank all of those Left Behind books pretty high on my list.) So even though this was a quick read, it wasn't a great read.

I was disappointed in the lack of drama. Call me crazy, but in fourth grade we learned that stories should go like this. I think I still judge books by that standard. I couldn't find any one plot point that made this book stand out. It was a creative and prescient premise, having been published at the tail-end of the Bush administration, whose abstinence-only policy was panned by a lot of teachers. But I didn't particularly like either character: Ruth was whiny and Tim was kind of a moron.

[On a side note, do you guys remember sex ed in high school? Ours consisted of our male assistant principal cross-dressing like a grandma and talking in a funny voice about the dangers of premarital sex. Oh, and the pages in our AP Environmental Science book that showed pictures of contraceptive devices were blacked out or removed. Thanks Wake County.]

Perrotta definitely wrote this book from a liberal/blue state position, which I think is fine (but then, I'm a liberal.) I wasn't expecting a balanced view of evangelical Christianity in a novel by an author who wears emo glasses. The Virginity Consultant's steely-but-fake-nice demeanor (which reminded me of Sarah Palin), Tim's homophobic pastor, Tim's own doubts about his new religion all serve as a damning indictment of the highjacking of the public sphere by the Bible Belt crew.

Bottom line: read this if you're already a Perrotta fan. Otherwise, I'd say go read "Election" or "Little Children" first. I haven't read those, but from what I hear, Perrotta does a good job of making adulterers, a pedophile, and Tracy Flick seem human and sympathetic. If he can do that, he should have been able to breathe more life into Ruth and Tim in this book.

1 comment:

Nihil Novum said...

I started Little Children and quit in the middle. Pretty much all the characters were too despicable for me to care what happened to them.

Election is a pretty good movie though.