The Abstinence Teacher

Midway through Tom Perrotta’s sixth novel, The Abstinence Teacher, Ruth Ramsey, a divorced mother of two, reluctantly puts on lipstick and jeans to meet with Tim Mason, her youngest daughter’s soccer coach and a recently remarried father of one, and even more reluctantly admits to herself that she secretly wishes she were a heroine in one of those “corny ‘opposites attract’ narratives” that were so appealing to writers of sitcoms and romantic comedies:

“The formula was simple: you brought together a man and a woman who held wildly divergent world views — an idealistic doctor, say, and an ambulance-chasing lawyer — and waited for them to realize that their witty intellectual combat was nothing more than a smoke screen, kicked up to conceal the inconvenient and increasingly obvious fact that they were desperate to hop into bed together.”

As it happens, that is precisely the situation she is in. The Abstinence Teacher is a rom-com every bit as classic in structure as the Tracy-Hepburn screwball variety (and, given that the press materials loudly proclaim that the film rights have already been sold to the directors of Little Miss Sunshine, its big-screen counterpart may well be coming soon.)

Our spunky heroine, Ruth, is a high school health teacher who, at 41, still looks good in a short lime green skirt and heels, and whose options for a hot Friday night (when her ex-husband has the kids) are limited to beers and Indian food with her best gay buddies, Randall (“an opera-loving dandy with a fetish for Italian designer eye wear” trapped in his job as the school reference librarian) and his partner, Gregory (a real estate agent who makes art on the side starring vintage Hasbro French Resistance Fighter GI Joes), followed by sleeping nude in her own bed, where she alone can appreciate the beauty of her “lean, muscular, lovely, unloved body.”

After more than a decade of fighting the good sex-positive feminist fight for enlightened sex education — promoting safe sex and making sure her students can locate and recognize the importance of the clitoris — Ruth is ratted out by a student in her class for daring to suggest that “some people enjoy” oral sex. Initially, she is mystified by her transgression. (When asked by her stodgy principal if she advocates fellatio, she helpfully corrects him, saying, “Not just fellatio. Cunnilingus too. I would never single out just the one.”) But a new evangelical church, the Tabernacle of the Gospel Truth, has declared a holy war on the town (“as if this sleepy bedroom community was an abomination unto the Lord, Sodom with good schools and a twenty-four-hour supermarket”), targeting the usual suspects — evolution, the porn section at the local video store, and the poor, beleaguered novels of Judy Blume.

When Ruth spots Tim, the shaggy-haired coach of her daughter’s soccer team, she takes him for a cute, aging hipster and is charmed by his winning way with children (he offers her an apple slice and compliments her daughter’s soccer skills by way of introduction). Despite his wedding band, he’s impressed by her lithe figure, which has been conveniently whittled down by the all the running she’s been doing to cope with the stress of being the town pariah.

Unfortunately, it is not to be. Tim chooses that particular day to lead the soccer team — the daughters of Muslims, Christians, atheists, liberals, and Ruth among them — in group prayer after a grueling match.

And we’re off! The stage is set for a face-off between godless liberals and aggressive evangelicals, a culture war of Red vs. Blue to be fought on the soccer field, town hall meetings, and the living rooms of the holy and the heathen (which side represents the idealistic doctor and which the ambulance-chasing lawyer is up for interpretation).

One would expect a writer with Perrotta’s wicked gifts for satire to wade into the fray with great glee, and his side characters do not disappoint. We get JoAnn, the 28-year-old blonde abstinence educator with possibly surgically enhanced assets sent to re-educate Ruth and her students on the virtues of chastity, complete with cooked statistics equating sex outside marriage with inevitable pregnancy, death, and disease and a slideshow of herself and her equally hot boyfriend cavorting in revealing swimwear, capped with the revelation that both — well, maybe just her — are virgins. We hear the story of how the fiery young preacher of the Tabernacle discovered the light of the Lord while working in Best Buy, and see him woo converts to his flock in (non-sexual encounters) in men’s rooms. And in a delicious section on Tim and his 24-year-old bride entitled “Hot Christian Sex,” we discover that the Lord — or at least those modern couples writing sex manuals in His name — is actually quite liberal about sex acts available to those joined in holy matrimony — you know, so long as there are no animals, gays, or people outside the marriage involved.

But those readers looking for a book as funny, complex, counterintuitive and brave as Little Children, Perrotta’s previous novel (and later a film that garnered him an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay) will likely be disappointed. Little Children deployed satire and good humor to wring out compassion for a pair of mismatched adulterers (plain Sarah and foxy Todd, stay-at-home suburban parents who bond over the loss of their former lives) and their spouses — as well as a convicted child molester and the ex-cop turned vigilante who pursues him. In its generous, remarkably stoic final scene, a motley assortment of former adversaries share a cigarette around a swing set, while Sarah discards the illusion of being “one of the lucky ones, a character in a love story with a happy ending.”

By contrast, The Abstinence Teacher takes fewer risks and provides, in fact, close to the sort of tale Sarah has been fantasizing about. Here, Perotta keeps the focus on Ruth and Tim’s story, which indeed holds to fast to a familiar dynamic. Thus, we are treated to their witty intellectual combat, enlivened by their obvious (and inconvenient) attraction to one another. The problem: Their worldviews aren’t so wildly divergent after all. Coach Tim’s God, as Ruth points out, has much more in common with that of the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens than, say, the god of Jerry Falwell. Tim, a former Deadhead who, in his late 30s, found himself living as a semi-failed musician with a remarkably successful drug addiction, is, in the words of Ruth, just another “musician who rejected the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle and found happiness in religion.” His previous marriage (to an assertive woman his own age, whom he still admires) and several decades in the secular, liberal world, have left him free of the more intractable and unpleasant social side effects of a devotion to Jesus — no homophobia or sexism here. His concessions to the Lord — a tendency to avoid going on drug- and alcohol-fueled benders, and a disdain for materialism — are in fact rather charming.

Tim’s backstory is meant to map a left-leaning, hedonistic musician’s discovery of comfort and discipline in a newfound addiction to the Lord. But his basic good nature and ideological confusion make him less convincing as a stand-in for the forces of evangelical conservatism. Other plot points — notably the relationship woes of Randy and Gregory — are resolved in a manner that feels rushed, as if the writer were nearing the end of the sitcom hour and looking for a swift, simple conclusion

The Abstinence Teacher is at its best when describing the confusion of a generation of parents who often feel that their children’s rebellion palls in comparison to their own. Ruth, for example, embarrasses her children with her sexual outspokenness; they react, in turn, by flirting with religion. And while Tim is grateful that his daughter, Abby, isn’t following his sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll template, he seems baffled by the cocoon of affluence that shelters — and sometimes inhibits — her. At one point, Ruth admits to herself that she “regretted most of the sex she ever had,” and that she would prefer her own daughters abstain until college.

But is something one regrets necessarily a mistake? Is it healthy to protect one’s innocence at the expense of experience? These questions linger, as Perrotta declines to provide a tidy answer. As such, they are perhaps the most provocative raised by this otherwise conventional novel.