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Pickle Me This

October 25, 2007

The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta

In Tom Perrotta’s new novel The Abstinence Teacher, Ruth Ramsay is asked if her daughter’s soccer coach is cute. “‘What difference does it make?'” she answers. ‘”He’s a drunk married Christian.'” To which her friend responds with, “‘Nobody’s perfect'”.

And indeed “nobody’s perfect” would be a fitting epigram for most of Perotta’s characters, Ruth Ramsay in particular. She is divorced and longing, struggling with her adolescent daughters, and facing trouble in her job as sex-ed teacher at the local high school. The year before her comment about orl sex (that “some people enjoy it”) had sparked an outcry by a fundamentalist Christian group, resulting in Ruth now being required to teach an “abstinence education” program. And so she is none too impressed when she catches her daughter involved in a group prayer at her soccer game, led by her coach, the aforementioned imperfect Tim Mason.

The novel moves between Tim and Ruth’s points of view, demonstrating the oddly ambivalent attraction developing between them. Tim is just as struggling as Ruth is, a reformed drug addict who was saved by Jesus, but lost his wife and daughter along the way. He tries to live in a way that would make his God proud, but temptation keeps finding him at every turn, and he can’t help questioning his faith. Both he and Ruth deal with their mutual attraction with distraction, and these distractions become the story. Tim trying to stay on the straight-and-narrow, Ruth’s attempt to rekindle an old flame. What happens when Ruth can’t bear the propaganda, and advises her class to look up Planned Parenthood’s website? How will Tim respond to his pastor’s urging to continue leading the soccer team in prayer, even though he’s not altogether comfortable with the idea and it may well drive him apart from his own daughter?

This is the stuff of suburban soap-opera, American satire, and Perrotta’s Election and Little Children have already established him as a master of these forms. The Abstinence Teacher is written with its broader implications in mind (namely the growing power of America’s religious right) but still focuses on the small, the details, on the roundedness of his characters. Perrotta does not resort to stereotypes in this story where it would have been easy to, and he draws no firm lines of good and evil. “Nobody’s perfect”, nobody at all. And though this story’s conclusion is perhaps not one as satisfying as its thunderous momentum truly deserves, the distractions along the way are altogether worth the while.

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