The Abstinence Teacher (This DIK review was written by a reader)
St. Martin's Press, $24.95, 358 pages, Amazon ASIN 0312358334
LLB: Tom Perrotta is the author of Election and Little Children, both of which were adapted for the big screen (and both, btw, excellent!). All of my reading about this particular book is that it is not a genre novel, but instead, mainstream fiction, as are Perrotta's other books. Carol Irvin wrote Covers Covered by Carol here at AAR for more than a year, as well as a number of reviews, mostly DIK reviews.
Some might quarrel that The Abstinence Teacher is not a romance novel because it breaks so many rules. What it really does though is break a bunch of no-nos that are not rules of the genre but are instead expectations that readers of the genre have put into place by their buying habits. This has resulted in rather predictable fare, none of it breaking any new ground but instead being same old, same old. This has also led to me reading more and more books outside of the genre because of my simple boredom with similar stories being told again and again. This story, however, blasts every same old, same old right out of the genre's otherwise stagnant waters, luring me back in mightily.
Perrotta's novel stays true to the genre in that man meets woman, the two of them are opposites and have views which clash, but nevertheless they have chemistry together. Then, despite considerable difficulties, the two of them come together - and at the end - stay together. Even the ending is a good deal more creative and liberal than one is used to reading in romance novels but it worked as a HEA for me. This is the romance formula all right and the author sticks to it. Where the author wildly treads into new territory though is in the details.
Ruth is a sex education teacher for a public school and in her early 40s. She is the divorced mother of two daughters and presently without a man in her life. Tim is a mortgage loan originator and soccer coach, all of which is overshadowed by his being an evangelical born again Christian. He's also in his early 40s, and oh yeah, he's married (again), but this time to a born again woman that his pastor fixed him up with and insisted he marry so as to keep him on the straight and narrow. His daughter by his first marriage is on the soccer team he coaches, as is Ruth's daughter.
The story begins by Tim's born again Christian church being upset by the way Ruth teaches her sex education class. They want an abstinence alternative brought into the classroom and even have their own female expert to show how this can be done. What set this all off was Ruth's making a comment in class about "some people enjoying oral sex," which resulted in one student's family threatening a lawsuit unless alternative views were presented in the classroom.
As for Tim, if someone had told me I could feel sympathy for this character, I would have not believed it possible. But I do. He was a bad boy for most of his life. He played in minor rock bands, did a lot of sex and drugs along with his rock'n'roll, and lost his wife and daughter as a result. What straightened him out was joining Pastor Dennis' church. He's now been clean, sober and working for three years under the pastor's guidance. The problem is that the pastor is militantly evangelical...and Tim is not. Oh, the hero can and does find himself praying and sharing his faith at times in ways I wished he hadn't, but this in no way comes close to the fervor of Pastor Dennis.
It is tempting to make Pastor Dennis into a villain - but I can't. He has done a lot of good for much of his flock, but his faith extends into areas in which he has no business. For instance, Tim's ex-wife, as the parent who has sole custody of their daughter, is responsible for their daughter's religiosity. But the pastor over-steps his bounds on this and he and Tim are thrown into increasing conflict over this issue, particularly since Tim's ex-wife is willing to go to court to clamp down on this religion being any part of her daughter's life.
It would also be tempting to make Tim's young wife, Carrie, into a villain. She is instead someone who does what she's told in order to get by. As an adult, Pastor Dennis took over where her religious parents left off. Her big incentive in marrying was to leave her parents' household; just one scene spent with those parents made me wholly sympathetic to her.
There is one moment of high comedy in the book where Ruth and three other sex education teachers attend an abstinence alternative training session. I laughed out loud during this entire sequence. There isn't much other room for comedy in this book but this one scene is hilarious and incredibly imaginative.
This plot line and these characters had me riveted from page one as the issues explored interest me greatly. I am typically over in Ruth's camp, where I find almost everything the other side does objectionable, yet I can't deny Tim's appeal. In fact, I like Tim as the hero. He certainly has weaknesses galore, struggles with them, stumbles in his climb to stay on his feet, but he is attractive and likable nonetheless.
Tom Perrotta is known for his provocative subject matter and doesn't write Inspirational Fiction. I imagine he conducted extensive research on Born-Again Christianity for this book. In my viewpoint he ably made the increasingly fine distinction between being a person of religious faith, which sustains you and sees you through the rigors of life, and being a crusading person of faith wanting to set the world afire with this faith, and condeming those who fail to share that fervor and those convictions. I have not seen another author deal with this distinction and conflict this well. Perrotta's handling of this subject also brings into question how far religion should intrude in a person's life; many of us believe it should not extend into public life, but how far should it extend in personal lives? As far as people marrying who are only together due to their pastor's influence?
Ruth must also be capable of making this distinction because whatever changes Tim throughout the story does not change his underlying faith. He cannot survive without his Christianity. Ruth, on the other hand, doesn't even belong to a church, so there is a wide gulf between them. She is strong person who finds most of the spiritual strength she needs within herself, while Tim seemed to me a weaker character, and one who used his religion as a crutch. In other words, these are two very real world characters and not in any way fantasy characters. They experience an immediate chemistry upon meeting which builds throughout the rest of the story despite considerable hurdles in their way. Yes, I can picture these two married and both of them will be better off for being married to one another. Tim needs a stronger woman than Carrie and Ruth is it. And Ruth wants to be in love and with a man and Tim is it, much more so than even her ex-husband was.
The book's plot developments might offend some readers - and so might this review - but a criterion very important to some readers will not be breached. I can't say more without fear of spoilers, but the idea of falling in love while married to another person will clearly push some buttons. On the other hand, that Tim's marriage was arranged by his pastor, without love or passion being a factor, might mitigate that problem. But even without this leavening factor, don't we all have to face the real world fact in our fiction that people do often start over and do better with someone else in their love lives? Of course they do, and I salute a story which handles all of this very well.
The complexity and uniqueness of all of the above puts The Abstinence Teacher over the top for me and solidly into DIK territory.
-- Carol Irvin
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