Monday, January 14, 2008
monday book review: the abstinence teacher, by tom perrotta

Perrotta's latest installment uses public school health teachers and suburban soccer moms and dads to examine the war between liberals and evangelicals. For over ten years Ruth Ramsay let her motto of "Pleasure is good, shame is bad, and knowledge is power" guide her teaching of human sexuality; in her classroom no subject was forbidden, but the envelope is eventually pushed too far when, in response to a student's vocal disgust over oral sex, she replies, "some people enjoy it."  A student complains and cue the evangelical Christians, who have an amazingly easy time swooping in and getting the sexuality curriculum changed to an "abstinence only" approach - a philosophy that Ruth strongly opposes, yet must still manage to teach.  In the aftermath of this controversy, Ruth meets her daughter's soccer coach - a former addict turned born-again evangelical Christian named Tim Mason, who unwittingly creates a huge mess the day he decided to lead his multi-faithed, community soccer team in prayer right before Ruth's very eyes.  What follows is the story of an unlikely friendship born from the controversy, and a book that pretty much bored me throughout.  I admit that my knowledge of Perrotta's storytelling is limited to film versions of two of his novels (Election, Little Children), but on the power of these two films and reviewers' commentaries I was expecting The Abstinence Teacher to be sharp, witty, mildly satirical, and funny when it needed to be.  Instead, the story played a bit like a Lifetime Original Movie, none of the characters were particularly likable, barring one moment that I found mildly amusing it was decidedly unfunny, and I probably would not have finished it if it were not for the sake of this review which I now write.  Perhaps I'm being a bit harsh, but in a word - meh.  You can do better.

Tom Perrotta
2007, 358 pages

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Blogger Carrie said...

Wow. I'm surprised you didn't like this, because I've heard such good things about it. This is the #1 book I want to read next, especially given the field I work in , and I was saving a gift card to spend on it. Perhaps now I'll just get it out of the library.

Blogger Mary said...

Hmm, I also am surprised you didn't like it as I've heard good reviews. I have it at home on loan from the library. Maybe I'll read Out Stealing Horses first. If I ever manage to finish Love in the Time of Cholera. Ugh.

Anonymous Dustin said...

Read _Bad Haircut_ if you want a laugh and some great stories by Perrotta! I didn't even get through Election, and I should have...he was just trying too hard. I think he is a great story writer...not so sure about his novels.

Blogger John said...

Little Children was one of the most critically over-valued novels of the last 10 years. Meh, indeed.

Blogger Mrs. White said...

Again, I think the reviewers over reached a bit with this one. The subject matter was compelling enough, but the story itself was va-nill-a.

Carrie - despite the title, I'd say about 65% of the novel focuses on the born-again Christian character who once used God as a crutch to get clean, but after finding sobriety he struggled to find a use for him. That whole plot line bugged me, and even I found the character of the pushy evangelical preacher to be insultingly stereotypical. You might disagree, but I'd recommend borrowing it rather than buying it just in case.

Mary - Funny you should mention it, I just picked up Out Stealing Horses today. I'm excited!

Dustin - thanks for the recommendation, and I'll have to check out some of his short stories. I know Perrotta's a good storyteller, but this novel was so very underwhelming.

And John - word. :)

Blogger Mary said...

Oh boy. I'm halfway through this book and I don't like any of the characters. I'm forcing myself to finish on principle.

Thank God I didn't buy it. Yay Library!

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