After throughly enjoying the novel Little Children (as well as the movie), I decided to try Tom Perrotta’s follow-up novel, The Abstinence Teacher. I’ve been continually impressed by how Perrotta frames the human experience through everyday life, and it’s interesting how much we can learn from one another when we look past the titles and labels that we all seem too eager to proudly display or affix to others. Perrotta is very adept at pushing the boundaries of what is comfortable and acceptable in modern society, yet he does it in a way that provokes thought and doesn’t lean one way or the other. With that said, I eagerly dove into the pages and readily absorbed the story.
We begin by being introduced to Ruth Ramsy, a sex ed/health teacher at a suburban high school in New Jersey. Divorced a few years back, Ruth still frets about her looks and marital prospects despite staying in good shape and having a firm grasp on what she wants in life. Unfortunately, her very realistic curriculum about sexual education flies in the face of the conservative school, where an “abstinence only” policy is in effect. Although she does her best to soldier on, Ruth’s spirit is partially broken by all the criticism she faces due to her teaching methods. We then meet Tim, a recovering drug/alcohol addict who has recently turned to Jesus and an evangelical faith to save his life. Now sober and remarried after a divorce, Tim still feels a bit of longing for his ex-wife, who tried to keep their marriage together against all odds during Tim’s drug-fueled years. Tim also struggles with his faith, as he is unsure as to what portion of his belief is real and what portion just uses faith as a crutch to get him out of an addictive lifestyle. Despite their inner turmoil, Ruth and Tim try to put their best foot forward every day, with Tim coaching a traveling soccer team that Ruth’s daughter is a member of. Ruth and Tim are first thrown together when Tim leads the team in a prayer after a soccer game, to which Ruth vehemently interrupts and pulls her daughter out of the circle. As Tim and Ruth are forced to confront the thorny issue of the rise of fundamental religion in the town, they find that they actually have a lot in common despite their seemingly divergent lives. Will they be able to work through their problems or will the increasing sexual and religious pressure in the town throw them apart and destroy their lives??
As stated previously, Perrotta’s ability to inject social commentary to what would normally seem to be a biography of the events of a small town is a testament to his skill as an author. Who would have known that you can pack so much discussion on the freedom of religion and rights to privacy over one soccer practice? These questions, couched in-between the mundane activities of suburban life, are meant to make you as the reader reassess your own views. What do you really think about the inclusion of a little more religion in our everyday lives? What is more important, preparing teenagers for sexual situations they may encounter in their futures or teaching them to avoid it altogether until they are married? Perrotta makes no quick judgement on these issues, yet you can tell the undercurrent of this story is his own experiences with these particular issues. It is as if Perrotta is asking the reader to reevaluate his or her position, and perhaps think of the issue in a way that he or she did not previously consider. Maybe, if all of us did this on a more regular basis, we wouldn’t be regaled with the daily battle of ideals that always plays out in politics as two sides fight for control of the populus. Instead of seeing who can shout louder and spew more facts, we should all take a second to see where the opposing party is coming from. Maybe, just maybe, we can actually watch the soccer practice instead of turning it into a public debate.
4 out of 5 Stars