The Abstinence Teacher
  • The Abstinence Teacher
  • The Abstinence Teacher

The Abstinence Teacher

3.5 63
by Tom Perrotta

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"Perrotta is that rare combination: a satirist with heart….Those who haven't curled up on the couch with this writer's books are missing a very great pleasure."—Seattle Times

Stonewood Heights is the perfect place to raise children: it's got good schools, solid values and a healthy real estate market. Parents in the town are

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"Perrotta is that rare combination: a satirist with heart….Those who haven't curled up on the couch with this writer's books are missing a very great pleasure."—Seattle Times

Stonewood Heights is the perfect place to raise children: it's got good schools, solid values and a healthy real estate market. Parents in the town are involved in their children's lives, and often in other children's lives, too—coaching sports, driving carpool, focusing on enriching experiences. Ruth Ramsey is the high school human sexuality teacher whose openness is not appreciated by all her students—or their parents. Her 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's introduction of Christianity on the playing field horrifies Ruth, while his evangelical church sees a useful target in the loose-lipped sex ed teacher. But when these two adversaries in a small-town culture war actually talk to each other, a surprising friendship begins to develop.

"Nobody renders the world of soccer moms and sprinklers and SUVs like Perrotta. He's the Steinbeck of suburbia."—Time

"Tom Perrotta is a truth-telling, unshowy chronicler of modern-day America."—The New York Times Book Review (in a front-page review)

The Abstinence Teacher illuminates the powerful emotions that run beneath the placid surface of modern American family life, and explores the complicated spiritual and sexual lives of ordinary people. It is elegantly and simply written, characterized by the distinctive mix of satire and compassion that has become Perrotta's trademark.

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Editorial Reviews

Michiko Kakutani
As formulaic as this plot might sound, Mr. Perrotta uses it not to construct a conventional screwball romance but to create a sad-funny-touching story that looks at the frustrations and perils of life in suburbia through darkly tinted, not rose-colored glasses—a story similar in tone and setting to his last novel, Little Children (2004).
—The New York Times
Liesl Schillinger
Tom Perrotta is a truth-telling, unshowy chronicler of modern-day America: the strong, silent type on paper…What does the author think of Pastor Dennis and his flock? As in Orhan Pamuk's Snow, a novel that devotes hundreds of pages to a heated battle between religious fanatics and educated secularists in a Turkish town without explicitly taking sides, Perrotta does not spell it out. Instead, he gives space and speeches to proselytizers and scoffers alike, letting readers form their own conclusions. Religion is no less controversial a subject to weave into fiction in this country than it is in Turkey. In any case, Perrotta has never been one to cast stones.
—The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly

Campbell Scott's soft but edgy voice, earnest but with a sarcastic undertone, is a supremely apt fit for Perrotta's skewering of modern society. He is equally convincingly whether playing Ruth, a divorced mother and sex-education teacher whose community is becoming increasingly religious, to her transparent disgust, or Tim, Ruth's daughter's soccer coach and a born-again Christian who is dismayed to find himself slipping back to his old drug addict habits. Scott's tone shifts just slightly to distinguish between the deadpan humor of Ruth's gay friend Randall and the pious lack of humor of an "abstinence consultant" brought in to reform Ruth. The evenness of Scott's voice is a reminder of how similar everyone is on a certain basic level, and it makes for a greater impact when he does raise the volume or change his accent. Though Ruth and Tim oppose each other over religion, their love lives are both damaged, and Scott's quiet, intimate delivery brings out the wounded yet stubbornly hopeful side of both of them. This is an effective, smart and sharp production. Simultaneous release with the St. Martin's hardcover (Reviews, July 9). (Oct.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Evangelical Christians and proponents of sex education (other than abstinence) usually don't see eye to eye, which certainly holds true in this novel by the author of Little Children. Ruth Ramsey is a tenured teacher who happily and quite successfully teaches sex ed to students at the Stonewood Heights high school. She firmly believes in providing kids with frank yet solid information so that they can make good choices. Ruth is also the divorced parent of two daughters, one a talented and avid soccer player. It is at a Saturday game that Ruth meets Tim Mason, a member of the Tabernacle, a local evangelical Christian church. This particular congregation has already had some run-ins with Ruth over her teaching methods, and Ruth is concerned when she discovers Tim leading the girls in prayer after a particularly exhilarating game. Perrotta deals with these timely issues by having characters from the different camps forced to confront one another. What results from these civilized exchanges, which feel so human in their complexity and confusion, is a more personal, inside view of how such tensions play out. Recommended for most collections and especially for Perrotta fans. [See Prepub Alert, LJ6/15/07.]
—Robin Nesbitt

Kirkus Reviews
Sex education, soccer and Christian fundamentalism make strange bedfellows in Perrotta's shrewd yet compassionate fifth novel. Neither as dark as Little Children (2004) nor as scathingly funny as Election (1998), like them it displays the author's wide-ranging empathy. Readers will certainly sympathize with Ruth Ramsey, the high-school teacher whose unwary response to a provocative classroom question about oral sex leads to her being saddled with a not-so-covertly Christian sex-ed curriculum. But Perrotta encourages us to respect all his characters, including the ones who belong to the Tabernacle of the Gospel Truth, source of the threatened lawsuit that's forced Ruth to tout the joys of abstinence. Among the believers is Tim Mason, a former rock musician and substance abuser who cleaned up with the help of the Tabernacle's Pastor Dennis, both a warm, nurturing shepherd to his flock and an unforgiving purveyor of hard-line doctrine. Ruth's older daughter Maggie plays on the soccer team Tim coaches, and she's outraged when he spontaneously leads them in a prayer after a hard-fought victory. That's about all the plot there is, as Ruth attempts to recruit other parents for a letter of protest and discovers that even in the affluent Northeastern suburb of Stonewood Heights the Christian right is a force to be reckoned with. Tim is beginning to have his doubts about his faith and especially about his marriage to Carrie, a sweet, much-younger woman who can't eradicate either his lustful memories of his ex-wife or his burgeoning attraction to Ruth. Perrotta makes gentle fun of Carrie dutifully leafing through a copy of Hot Christian Sex: The Godly Way to Spice Up Your Marriage, but also ofRuth's gay pal Gregory making elaborate dioramas of Parisian cafes featuring French Resistance Fighter GI Joes clad in black turtlenecks and berets. Confusion and regret are as much the subjects here as religious controversy. Ruefully humorous and tenderly understanding of human folly: the most mature, accomplished work yet from this deservedly bestselling author.
Amy Benfer
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. --Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer has worked as an editor and staff writer at Salon, Legal Affairs, and Paper magazine. Her reviews and features on books have appeared in Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, The Believer, Kirkus, and The New York Times Book Review.

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Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Abstinence Teacher

By Tom Perrotta

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2007 Tom Perrotta
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-2138-1


Miss Morality

ON THE FIRST DAY OF HUMAN SEXUALITY, RUTH RAMSEY WORE A short lime green skirt, a clingy black top, and strappy high-heeled sandals, the kind of attention-getting outfit she normally wouldn't have worn on a date — not that she was going on a lot of dates these days — let alone to work. It was a small act of rebellion on her part, a note to self — and anyone else who cared — that she was not a willing participant in the farce that would unfold later that morning in second-period Health & Family Life.

On the way to homeroom, Ruth stopped by the library to deliver the grande nonfat latte she regularly picked up for Randall, the Reference Librarian, a fellow caffeine junkie who returned the favor by making the midday Starbucks run. The two of them had bonded several years earlier over their shared revulsion for what Randall charmingly called the "warmed-over Maxwell Piss" in the Teacher's Lounge, and their willingness to spend outlandish sums of money to avoid it.

Randall kept his eyes glued to the computer screen as she approached. A stranger might have mistaken him for a dedicated Information Sciences professional getting an early start on some important research, but Ruth knew that he was actually scouring eBay for vintage Hasbro action figures, a task he performed several times a day. Randall's partner, Gregory, was a successful real-estate broker and part-time artist who built elaborate dioramas featuring the French Resistance Fighter GI Joe, an increasingly hard-to-find doll whose moody Gallic good looks were dashingly accentuated by a black turtleneck sweater and beret. In his most recent work, Gregory had painstakingly re-created a Parisian café circa 1946, with a dozen identical GI Jeans staring soulfully at each other across red-checkered tablecloths, tiny handmade Gauloises glued to their plastic fingers.

"Thank God," he muttered, as Ruth placed the paper cup on his desk. "I was lapsing into a coma."

"Any luck?"

"Just a few Russian infantrymen. Mint condition, my ass." Randall turned away from the screen and did a bug-eyed double take at the sight of Ruth's outfit. "I'm surprised your mother let you out of the house like that."

"My new image." Ruth struck a pose, jutting out one hip and sucking in her cheeks like a model. "Like it?"

He gave her a thorough top-to-bottom appraisal, taking full advantage of the gay man's license to stare.

"I do. Very Mary Kay Letourneau, if you don't mind my saying so."

"My daughters said the same thing. Only they didn't mean it as a compliment."

Randall reached for his coffee cup, raising it to his lips and blowing three times into the aperture on the plastic lid, as though it were some sort of wind instrument.

"They should be proud to have a mom who can carry off a skirt like that at ..." Randall's voice trailed off diplomatically.

"... at my age?" Ruth inquired.

"You're not that old," Randall assured her. "And you look great."

"Lotta good it does me."

Randall sipped his latte and gave a philosophical shrug. He was a little older than Ruth, but you wouldn't have known it from his dark curly hair and eternally boyish face. Sometimes she felt sorry for him — he was a cultured gay man, an opera-loving dandy with a fetish for Italian designer eyewear, trapped all day in a suburban high school — but Randall rarely complained about the life he'd made for himself in Stonewood Heights, even when he had good reason to.

"You never know when opportunity will knock," he reminded her. "And when it does, you don't want to answer the door in a ratty old bathrobe."

"It better knock soon," Ruth said, "or it won't matter what I'm wearing."

Randall set his cup down on the Wonder Woman coaster he kept on his desk, next to an autographed picture of Maria Callas. The serious expression on his face was only slightly compromised by his milk-foam mustache.

"So how are you feeling?" he asked. "You okay about all this?"

Ruth shifted her gaze to the window behind the circulation desk, taking a moment to admire the autumnal image contained within its frame: a school bus parked beneath a blazing orange maple, a bright blue sky crowning the world. She felt a sudden urge to be far away, tramping through the woods or wandering around a strange city without a map.

"I just work here," she said. "I don't make the rules."

RUTH SPENT most of first period in the lounge, chatting with Donna DiNardo, a Biology teacher and field hockey coach in her late thirties. Over the summer, after years of being miserably single, Donna had met her soulmate — an overbearing optometrist named Bruce DeMastro — through an internet matchmaking service, and they'd gotten engaged after two magical dates.

Ruth had been thrilled when she heard the news, partly because of the fairy-tale aspect of the story, and partly because she'd gotten tired of Donna's endless whining about how hard it was to meet a man once you'd reached a certain age, which had only served to make Ruth that much more pessimistic about her own prospects. Oddly, though, finding love hadn't done much to improve Donna's mood; she was a worrier by nature, and the prospect of sharing her life with another person provided a mother lode of thorny new issues to fret about. Today, for example, she was wondering whether it would be a hardship for her students if, after the big day, she asked them to address her as Ms. DiNardo-DeMastro.

Although Ruth felt strongly that women should keep their names when they married — she hadn't done so, and now she was stuck with her ex-husband's last name — she kept this opinion to herself, having learned the hard way that you could only lose by taking sides in matters as basic as this. She had once offended a pregnant friend by admitting — after persistent demands for her honest opinion — to disliking the name "Claudia," which, unbeknownst to her, the friend had already decided to bestow upon her firstborn child. Little Claudia was eight now, and Ruth still hadn't been completely forgiven.

"Do whatever you want," Ruth said. "The students won't care."

"But DiNardo-DeMastro?" Donna was standing by the snack table, peering into a box of Dunkin' Munchkins with an expression of naked longing. She was a heavyset woman whose body image anxieties had reached a new level of obsession now that she'd been fitted for a wedding gown. "It's kind of a mouthful, isn't it?"

"You're fine either way," Ruth assured her.

"It's driving me crazy." Donna lifted a chocolate Munchkin from the box, pondered it for a moment, then put it back. "I really don't know what to do."

With an air of melancholy determination, Donna backed away from the donut holes and helped herself to a styrofoam cup of vile coffee, into which she dumped two heaping spoonfuls of nondairy creamer and three packets of carcinogenic sweetener.

"Bruce hates hyphenated names," she continued. "He just wants me to be Donna DeMastro."

Ruth glanced plaintively around the room, hoping for a little backup from her colleagues, but the two other teachers present — Pete Fontana (Industrial Arts) and Sylvia DeLacruz (Spanish) — were ostentatiously immersed in their reading, none too eager to embroil themselves in the newest installment of Donna's prenuptial tribulations. Ruth didn't blame them; she would've done the same if not for her guilty conscience. Donna had been a kind and supportive friend last spring, when Ruth was the one with the problem, and Ruth still felt like she owed her.

"I'm sure you'll work something out," she said.

"If my name was Susan it wouldn't be such a big deal," Donna pointed out, drifting back toward the Munchkins as if drawn by an invisible force. "But Donna DiNardo-DeMastro? That's too many D's."

"Alliteration," agreed Ruth. "I'm a fellow sufferer."

"I don't want to turn into a joke," Donna said, with surprising vehemence. "It's hard enough to be a woman teaching science."

Ruth sympathized with her on this particular point. Jim Wallenski, the man Donna had replaced, had been known as "Mr. Wizard" to three decades' worth of Stonewood Heights students. He was a gray-haired, elfin man who wandered the halls in a lab coat and bow tie, smiling enigmatically as he tugged on his right earlobe, the Science Geek from central casting. Despite her master's degree in Molecular Biology, Donna just didn't look the part in her tailored bell-bottom pantsuits and tasteful gold jewelry. She was too earthbound, too well organized, too attentive to other people, more credible as a highly efficient office manager than as Ms. Wizard.

"I don't know, Ruth." Donna peered into the Munchkins box. "I'm just feeling overwhelmed by all these decisions."

"Eat it," said Ruth.

"What?" Donna seemed startled. "What did you say?"

"Go ahead. One Munchkin's not gonna kill you."

Donna looked scandalized. "You know I'm trying to be good."

"Treat yourself." Ruth stood up from the couch. "I gotta look over some notes. I'll catch up with you later, okay?"

After a very brief hesitation, Donna plucked a powdered Munchkin out of the box and popped it into her mouth, smiling at Ruth as she did so, as if the two of them were partners in crime. Ruth gave a little wave as she slipped out the door. Donna waved back, chewing slowly, her fingertips and lips dusted with sugar.

THE SUPERINTENDENT and the Virginity Consultant were waiting outside Room 23, both of them smiling as if they were happy to see Ruth come clackety-clacking down the long brown corridor, as if the three of them were old friends who made it a point to get together whenever possible.

"Well, well," said Dr. Farmer, in the jaunty tone he only trotted out for awkward situations. "If it isn't the estimable Ms. Ramsey. Right on time."

Glancing at Ruth's outfit with badly concealed disapproval, he thrust out his damp, meaty paw. She shook it, disconcerted as always by the change that came over the Superintendent when she found herself face-to-face with him. From a distance he looked like himself — the handsome, vigorous, middle-aged man Ruth had met fifteen years earlier — but up close he morphed into a bewildered senior citizen with rheumy eyes, liver spots, and unruly tufts of salt-and-pepper ear hair.

"Punctuality is one of my many virtues," Ruth said. "Even my ex-husband would agree."

Ruth's former husband — the father of her two children — had taught for a few years in Stonewood Heights before taking a job in nearby Gifford Township. He'd recently been promoted to Curriculum Supervisor for seventh- and eighth-grade Social Studies, and was rumored to be next in line for an Assistant Principalship at the middle school.

"Frank's a good man." The Superintendent spoke gravely, as if defending Frank's honor. "Very dependable."

"Unless you're married to him," Ruth said, doing her best to make this sound like a lighthearted quip.

"How long were you together?" asked the consultant, JoAnn Marlow, addressing Ruth in that disarmingly cordial way she had, as if the two of them were colleagues and not each other's worst nightmare.

"Eleven years." Ruth shook her head, the way she always did when contemplating the folly of her marriage. "I don't know what I was thinking."

JoAnn laid a cool, consoling hand on Ruth's arm. As usual, she was done up like a contestant in a beauty pageant — elaborate hairdo, gobs of makeup, everything but the one-piece swimsuit and the sash that said "Miss Morality"— though Ruth didn't understand why she bothered. If you were determined to live like a nun — and determined to broadcast this fact to the world — why waste all that time making yourself pretty?

"Must be so awful," JoAnn whispered, as if Ruth had just lost a close relative under tragic circumstances.

"Felt like a ton of bricks off my chest, if you want the truth. And Frank and I actually get along much better now that we don't have to see each other every day."

"I meant for the children," JoAnn explained. "It's always so hard on the children."

"The girls are fine," Ruth told her, resisting the urge to add, not that it's any of your business.

"Cute kids," said Dr. Farmer. "I remember when the oldest was just a baby."

"She's fourteen now," said Ruth. "Just as tall as I am."

"This is where the fun starts." He shook his head, speaking from experience. His middle child, Andrea, had been wild, a teenage runaway and drug addict who'd been in and out of rehab numerous times before finally straightening out. "The boys start calling, you have to worry about where they are, who they're with, what time they're coming home —"

The bell rang, signaling the end of first period. Within seconds, the hallways were filled with platoons of sleepy-looking teenagers, nodding and muttering to one another as they passed. Some of them looked like little kids, Ruth thought, others like grown-ups, sixteen-and seventeen-year-old adults. According to surveys, at least a third of them were having sex, though Ruth knew all too well that you couldn't always guess which ones just from looking at them.

"Girls have to protect themselves," JoAnn said. "They're living in a dangerous world."

"Eliza took two years of karate," Ruth reported. "She made it up to her green belt. Or maybe orange, I can't remember. But Maggie, my younger one, she's the jock. She's going to test for her blue belt next month. She does soccer and swimming, too."

"Impressive," noted Dr. Farmer. "My wife just started taking Tai Chi. She does it with some Chinese ladies in the park, first thing in the morning. But that's not really a martial art. It's more of a movement thing."

The adults vacated the doorway, making way for the students who began drifting into the classroom. Several of them smiled at Ruth, and a few said hello. She'd felt okay right up to that point, more or less at peace with the decision she'd made. But now, quite suddenly, she became aware of the cold sweat pooling in her armpits, the queasy feeling spreading out from her belly.

"I was talking about spiritual self-defense," said JoAnn. "We're living in a toxic culture. The messages these girls get from the media are just so relentlessly degrading. No wonder they hate themselves."

Dr. Farmer nodded distractedly as he scanned the nearly empty hallway. His face relaxed as Principal Venuti rounded the corner by the gym and began moving toward them at high speed, hunched in his usual bowlegged wrestler's crouch, as if he were looking for someone to take down.

"Here's our fourth," said Dr. Farmer. "So we're good to go." "Looks like it," agreed Ruth. "Be a relief just to get it over with." "Oh, come on," JoAnn said, smiling at Ruth to conceal her annoyance. "It's not gonna be that bad."

"Not for you," Ruth said, smiling right back at her. "It's gonna be just great for you."

SOME PEOPLE enjoy it.

That was all Ruth had said. Even now, when she'd had months to come to terms with the fallout from this remark, she still marveled at the power of those four words, which she'd uttered without premeditation and without any sense of treading on forbidden ground.

The incident had occurred the previous spring, during a contraception lecture Ruth delivered to a class of ninth graders. She had just completed a fairly detailed explanation of how an IUD works when she paused and asked if anyone had any questions. After a moment, a pale, normally quiet girl named Theresa McBride raised her hand.

"Oral sex is disgusting," Theresa declared, apropos of nothing. "You might as well French-kiss a toilet seat. You can get all sorts of nasty diseases, right?"

Theresa stared straight at Ruth, as if daring her to challenge this incontrovertible fact. In retrospect, Ruth thought she should have been able to discern the hostile intent in the girl's unwavering gaze — most of the ninth graders kept their eyes trained firmly on their desks during the more substantive parts of Sex Ed — but Ruth wasn't in the habit of thinking of her students as potential adversaries. If anything, she was grateful to the girl for creating what her grad school professors used to call "a teachable moment."

"Well," Ruth began, "from what I hear about oral sex, some people enjoy it."

The boys in the back of the room laughed knowingly, an attitude Ruth chalked up more to bravado than experience, despite all the rumors about blowjobs being as common as hand-holding in the middle school. Theresa reddened slightly, but she didn't avert her eyes as Ruth continued with the more serious part of her answer, in which she discussed a few basic points of sexual hygiene, and described the body's ingenious strategies for separating the urinary and reproductive systems, even though they shared a lot of the same real estate. She finished by enumerating the various STD's that could and could not be transmitted through oral-to-genital contact, and recommending the use of condoms and dental dams to make oral sex safer for both partners.

"Done properly," she said, "cunnilingus and fellatio should be a lot more pleasant, and a lot cleaner, than kissing a toilet seat. I hope that answers your question."


Excerpted from The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta. Copyright © 2007 Tom Perrotta. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Abstinence Teacher 3.5 out of 5 based on 1 ratings. 63 reviews.
shannongesq More than 1 year ago
The book is about a divorced sex-ed teacher who runs up against some evangelical Christians who do not like the way she teaches her class. It's a pitched battle - that she loses. She is forced to teach abstinence. Meanwhile, her daughter plays on a soccer team coached by one of the evangelicals. A former rock band guy who's a recovering addict. He's married to one of the flock and unhappy. He's fighting to stay sober and wondering whether the "Godly" life is truly for him. The main characters intersect and, of course, there is a romantic tension between them. It's not acted upon during the course of the book, but it is there. Overall, I liked the book. I found the ending to be unsatisfying. It wasn't that it left things open. It just seemed like the author got to a point and decided to just stop writing. 20 or so more pages would have not left an impression like he just ran out of gas and left the book on the side of the road as is.
nbNYC More than 1 year ago
I love Tom Perrotta's books. I read one of his short stories in a compilation of Best Short Stories (2005?) edited by Michael Chabon and knew I wanted to read more. I then read Little Children and this book and was not disappointed. Perrotta's writing is elegant and fluid, easy to read, and hilarious. He writes about ordinary people and his descriptions are spot on. We must be around the same age because I found myself laughing out loud at his very specific dated references. I doubt anyone will understand them twenty years from now but for those of us in their forties, it is perfect. His characters are very likable and I couldn't put the book down. I moved on to Joe College which was equally engaging and clever. The unique aspect of Perrotta's work is that his writing seems effortless, easy, light but is actually very sophisticated and often profound.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I like story line, but my problem was the ending of the book. The author, in my opinion, did a very good job with the characters. I really enjoyed Ruth and Tim. I just think he lost his focus towards the end, to me it was as if he was rushed to finish and that was his final product. In other words it climaxed but it tumbled on its way down.
ringoDR More than 1 year ago
Had to slog through a lot to get to a disappointing ending.
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I'm noticing that many of the reviews here emphasize the book's initial "liberal/conservative" premise. But what I think the author is trying to convey is that people are people, no matter what their religous beliefs are. Perrotta does an excellent job, as always, of capturing the essence of humanity and the beauty and intrigue of our imperfections. I've also noticed a few negative reviews stating, "Nothing happened!" I find this to be misleading and innacurate. This is a carefully paced, character-study of a novel that focuses on two individuals, but also humorously and yet accurarely renders several others. If you enjoy realistic depiction of adult relationships, and celebrating the quirks and complications that ensue, then you won't be dissappointed from this or any book written by Tom Perrotta.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is an excellent, fun, funny, thought provoking and quick read. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys satiracle social commentary and unbiased insight into faith or lackthereof and sex.
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Another great book from Tom Perrotta. If you like your stories driven by strong characters that seem so real, then this is your book.
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eak321 More than 1 year ago
THE ABSTINENCE TEACHER is the second book I've read by Perrotta (the first being LITTLE CHILDREN. I like his writing style. If there is a writing style, that is. His writing is just very conversational and easy to read. You don't have to put in a lot of effort; he doesn't try to make things unnecessarily over-intellectual. The novel is about a Health/Sex Ed teacher named Ruth who gets in trouble for saying in class that some people enjoy the oral variety. The school then adopts a curriculum of abstinence that she -- obviously -- doesn't agree with. One of the best chapters of the book has to be when Ruth is forced to attend a workshop with other "bad" teachers throughout the school district. It's very well written and humorous. I could have listened to this group discuss their experiences for an entire novel in itself. After reading about a third of the way into the novel about Ruth, it then abruptly switches gears. The main character now becomes Tim, and we see things through his eyes. It was a bit jarring at first, but I understand why Perrotta did this. He wanted to show readers two sides of the story. Tim is a Jesus-lover. But he wasn't always. In his youth, he was a Deadhead. He smoked, he drank, he did drugs, he partied, etc. He was a terrible husband and an even worse father. Then he found God, became a born-again Christian, and turned his life around. After losing his wife and most of his rights to his daughter. Tim isn't an extreme Bible-thumper, though. He's cool with homosexuality and the like. After a long section about Tim (the lesser interesting but possibly more in-depth character), the novel then alternates between Tim's and Ruth's point of view. Their lives intersect when Tim, a soccer coach, has his team pray at a game. Ruth's daughter is on the team and she's not happy with Tim. All in all, THE ABSTINENCE TEACHER was an enjoyable (and easy) read, and I was pleased that Perrotta showed both positive and negative aspects to both Ruth's and Tim's personalities so the subject matter would appeal to a broader audience and not take sides. My only disappointment would be that not much happened in the novel. It was basically "a day in the life." Or, in this case, "a few months in the lives of Ruth and Tim."
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gaylelin More than 1 year ago
In his usual style, Tom Perrotta combines satire with exactly the right amount of compassion to serve up a delightful book. This one is about a woman who teaches health and sex education. Her classes are geared to telling the students the truth and to provide them with advice about protecting themselves. She is divorced and has a daughter. Someone takes offense at something she says regarding masturbation and she is instructed by the administration to attend a workshop in which she will learn to teach abstinence as the only method of protection. She knows this will lead to failure, the human condition being what it is. Meanwhile, a young divorced man who has had problems with addiction is welcomed into the fold of an evangelical church known simply as Tabernacle. The pastor manages to worm his way into all aspects of the man's life to help him be all that he can be for God. This young man has a daughter who plays soccer and he becomes the coach for her team. After an especially grueling game, the coaches join hands with the girls and have a prayer out on the field. The Abstinence teacher goes ballistic and jerks her daughter off the field, telling the coach that it is her right and responsibility to structure her child's religious training (or lack of) and certainly not his. There are other interesting characters including a gay couple, one of whom is also a teacher. In my opinion, the lesson to take away from this is that all things should be done in moderation and common sense, including religion. I loved this book!
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