Monday, September 22, 2008
The Abstinence Teacher, by Tom Perrotta
Something of an old story in new drag. Ruth teaches sex education in a school district that has recently seen the growth of a couple of fundamentalist Christian churches. The school board, influenced by these new neighbors, votes to require the teaching of abstinence-only sex education, which Ruth abhors but nevertheless chooses to do, in hopes that some enlightenment will eventually make it to the board, where it can change the course.
Ruth is divorced and has a young daughter who plays soccer very well. She has made it to the A-team, where she is coached by a volunteer named Tim. Tim has taken on coaching as a way to connect to his own daughter from his former marriage, and has found he has a knack for it. He also has a knack for making bad decisions with the best of intentions. He recently joined a fundamentalist church because its pastor had helped him fight his addictions and he wants to stay clean and go straight. He continues to make questionable decisions but fights his own tendencies, sometimes with the pastor's help.
Tim and Ruth knock heads over an incident after a game that Ruth watched. After his team makes an amazing win, Tim spontaneously makes a circle with his team and says a prayer of thanks with them. Ruth sees this and confronts Tim. In spite of their differences, there is an attraction between them that neither acknowledges at the time.
There are glimpses into the world of the fundamentalist church that ring true. I sensed that Perrotta tried to be careful, to represent the members as flesh-and-blood, whole human beings. I didn't sense any exaggeration even though at times the situations were darkly funny. There are also glimpses into Ruth's world, a world where she lives alone and often enjoys the company of a gay couple, her best friends.
Although she is a grown-up woman with confidence in her work, Ruth hungers for more. Specifically, she's lonely. Specifically, she craves a man in her bed. This is a common theme in chick-lit and I had hoped not to find it here, and it colored my reaction to this story. Throughout the book I kept looking for the real theme, and in the end it was simply an updated romance, where gay guys are okay and people are not perfect, Christian or not. The characters are certainly more interesting than those in the pulpier novels but I felt the story lacked real direction beyond the romance.