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?

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