Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Julie's Review: The Abstinence Teacher

Summary: Stonewood Heights is the perfect place to raise kids. It's got the proverbial good schools, solid values and a healthy real estate market. It's the kind of place where parents are involved in their children's lives, where no opportunity for enrichment goes unexplored.

Ruth Ramsey is the human sexuality teacher at the local high school. She believes that "pleasure is good, shame is bad, and knowledge is power." Ruth's younger daughter's soccer coach is Tim Mason, a former stoner and rocker whose response to hitting rock bottom was to reach out and be saved. Tim belongs to The Tabernacle, an evangelical Christian church that doesn't approve of Ruth's style of teaching. And Ruth in turn doesn't applaud The Tabernacle's mission to take its message outside its doors. Adversaries in a small-town culture war, Ruth and Tim instinctively mistrust each other. But when a controversy on the soccer field pushes the two of them to actually talk to each other, they are forced to take each other at something other than face value. The Abstinence Teacher exposes the powerful emotions that run beneath the surface of modern American family life and explores the complex spiritual and sexual lives of ordinary people.

Review: I hadn't read a Tom Perrotta novel but I had seen 2 movies based on his books, Election and Little Children. I thoroughly enjoyed both so much that I decided to read one of his books. The summary sounded very good but after finishing the book, I think the title “The Abstinence Teacher” is a bit misleading. Sure it’s what fuels the novel into a direction but I really think the novel is about faith, religion and personal choices. I found the two main characters Ruth and Tim to be likeable. I could identify with both of them on different levels. I see why Tim was drawn to religion, as many recovering addicts are; he just joined a very “pushy” church and got sucked into their rhetoric. As for Ruth, all she did was make a simple statement about how some people enjoyed oral sex after being asked a direct question by a student. Frankly, it’s not like she showed them how perform it. This comment sends a ripple through the community and enter in Joanne Marlow, who is the very put together Abstinence Teacher. The school even does an assembly where she testifies to how she’s a virgin and all of her friends who’ve had sex have had traumatic outcomes. Now, I do think that abstinence should be taught as part of an overall sex education course, but I do not think it’s realistic to believe that teenagers abstain. Ruth is basically forced to teach the new curriculum even though she doesn’t believe in it and thinks it’s full of crap.

When Ruth’s daughter Maggie is lead in prayer after a soccer game by her coach, Tim, Ruth throws a fit and pulls Maggie off the field. Ruth is ticked off because Tim is a part of the church, Tabernacle, which is forcing her to teach the abstinence course. She feels that if she can’t teach other alternatives to abstinence in her classroom, her daughter shouldn’t be subjected to prayer in a park district sponsored sport. Ruth wants to compose a letter to the head of the Soccer Association that scolds Tim for his prayer after a game but she’s finding that the other parents are reluctant to get on board since no harm was really done. Tim comes to Ruth to discuss the issue and Ruth resolves not to send a letter.

I’m not sure if it’s the meeting with Ruth that sends Tim into a religious tailspin or if he would have gotten there eventually anyway. I think he was struggling with his new found faith for a while. I don’t necessarily think his issue is with God because he still does pray for guidance at the end of the book, I think his issue is with the church he is attending and its leader, Pastor Dennis. He does everything Pastor Dennis tells him to do, even if it doesn’t feel right so that he can be a righteous man instead of a sinner. He even marries a young woman even though he’s not in love with her because his Pastor tells him it’s a good idea. Tim is a follower and religion makes it worse. I agree with Tim’s mom when she says that religion is just another addiction for him. I think by the end of the novel he does start to realize that fact and is looking for his own truth. Which isn’t that what all of us are doing anyway?

Overall, I like his prose, wit and how he examines subject matters that most of us deal with on some level or at some point in our lives. I wouldn’t say I loved this book but I did find the characters appealing and real. I would definitely read him again.

Final Take: 3.5/5


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