Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta

I read this book on a four hour plane ride, sitting next to an overly perfumed elderly woman who was reading what appeared to be an 800 page tome titled something like Exploring the Gospel of John. Not the most comfortable circumstances, to say the least. She kept giving my book dirty looks, as if she knew it was making fun of her book. And by the time I finished The Abstinence Teacher, I'm not sure I blamed her.

I had extremely high expectations for this novel. So you know where I'm coming from, let me say right away that I'm not a religious person. However, many of the people I love and care about are. Half of my family are serious Christians - not Left Behind Christians, but they love Jesus and aren't shy about saying so. Because of the various discussions and arguments we've had over the years, I like to think I have a bit of insight into how serious Christians think, and I do my best to treat their beliefs with compassion and respect. I was expecting similar even handedness from The Abstinence Teacher, (especially after reading the NYTBR review where the reviewer claims that Perrotta "gives space and speeches to proselytizers and scoffers alike, letting readers form their own conclusions"), but in this I was disappointed. Perrotta seemed to me to be preaching to the choir, as I imagine most of his readers identify with the non-religious protagonist, Ruth, and I completed the novel with no more insight into fundamentalist Christian sects than when I started.

Don't get me wrong - as someone who's not a fan of organized religion, it was satisfying to read a book where the secular humanist side wins out over the "Jesus freaks." But to be fair, the Jesus contingency weren't putting up much of a fight.

Here's the story: Forty-one year old Ruth Ramsey is a divorced Sex-Ed high school teacher who recently got into trouble for saying that "some people enjoy it" ("it" being oral sex). One of her students, who belongs to the Tabernacle, a new fundamentalist Christian organization that condemns drinking, dancing, premarital sex, homosexuality, and everything else you'd expect, misquotes Ruth as advocating oral sex in the classroom. The Christian community threatens suit, and to appease them, the school adopts a new program of Abstinence (called Wise Choices) that Ruth must teach. Ruth of course, objects to the program, calling it unrealistic and uninformed (one of their stats puts the failure rates of condoms as high as 36%).

In the meantime, Ruth's 10-year-old daughter Maggie is one of the top players on her soccer team. When Ruth attends a game and Maggie's coach, Tim Mason (also a member of the Tabernacle), leads the team in prayer after a victory, Ruth yanks Maggie out of the prayer circle and threatens to take her off the team.

Thus begins the dialog and strange attraction between Ruth and Tim. Their arguments about theology were some of the most anticipated scenes in the novel for me. Here's an exchange that had me particularly interested:

Ruth: "I'm being silly? You're the one trying to sell me a theological system that puts Hitler and Gandhi on the same level."

Tim: "It does not."

Ruth: "According to what you told me, they're both burning in hell for not being Christians."

Tim: "I'm sure God's capable of making a distinction between Hitler and Gandhi."

Ruth: "I hope so. But somebody apparently forgot to mention that in the Bible."

...this continues on, but here's the clinching line...

Tim: "Look, Ruth. You can trap me in a hundred contradictions that smarter people would be able to explain away. But that's not what this is about for me."

This is typically where this type of arguments ends for me, too. What Tim says sums up my frustration with his character - why can't he be one of the "smarter people" that could explain away Ruth's contradictions? Now that's a discussion I'd like to be privy to.

Tim is a recent Christian convert who came to religion once he hit rock bottom. He was an alcoholic and drug addict whose vices cost him his house, wife, and daughter. He seems to have used Jesus as a crutch to begin rebuilding his life - when the story opens he is holding down a full time job, coaching his daughter's soccer team, and has been awarded custody of her once a week. The other Christian characters also seem to have accepted Jesus out of sheer desperation. Pastor Dennis had what could only be described as a psychotic break while working as a Best Buy employee: he went from a functioning member of society to a man who saw a Bible glowing on his desk and was consequently inspired to destroy thousands of dollars worth of electronic equipment while screaming things like "Whore!" and "Abomination!" Tim's young Christian wife reveals on her wedding night that not only is she not a virgin, but she once slept with a dozen men in the space of two weeks. The Christian student in Ruth's class is puritanically dour and scowling and bent on taking Ruth down. I eventually had to wonder why there weren't any Christian characters who were more, um, "Christian."

I'm not one to plug Christianity, but I know plenty of people who are mentally and emotionally stable, don't have a history of substance abuse or rampant promiscuity, and still convert to Christianity or are practicing Christians. I understand why Perrotta made the choices he did, because it creates for more contrast and drama, but I'd have been more interested to see a less hypocritical Christian butt up against Ruth.

This isn't to say that I didn't enjoy the novel - I did. I read it in a single sitting, and it kept me turning the pages. The characters are extremely well drawn, especially Ruth. Here's something she said that I particularly enjoyed:

"If there was one thing that rankled about being a woman, it was this conviction, drummed into your head before you had a chance to defend yourself, that it was your job - your obligation - to always look your best, even in situations when you had no logical reason to care."

There are some stylistically genius sections in the book, like when Perrotta alternates between Ruth being stuck in an Abstinence training program, with the assignment to write about "A Sexual Experience That I Regret," and her date with an old high school fling the night before. Ruth mischievously writes about what happened that night - how she turned down the opportunity for sex, and wishes she hadn't. Then there's the blond bombshell promotional speaker from Wise Choices, who speaks at Ruth's high school about her decision to remain a virgin until after marriage. Along with the expected cautionary tales of genital warts and herpes, gonorrhea and AIDS, she presents a slide show of her model boyfriend, both of them in swimwear on some Carri bean island, and says:

"As you might imagine, it's not easy saying no to a superhot guy like Ed. But when it gets hard, I just remind myself of my wedding night, and how amazing it's going to be when I give myself to my husband with a pure heart, a clean conscience, and a perfectly intact body. Because that's going to be my reward, and mark my words, people - it is going to be soooo good, oh my God, better than you can even imagine."

Those of you who have had sex with a male virgin can appreciate how thick the irony is here.

Obviously, the US is sharply divided on religious issues. In this area especially, people seem incapable or unwilling to see things from "the others'" perspective. That's why I think a novel like this has a bigger job to do than just entertain: specifically, it should help all the non-hardcore-Christians that comprise the majority of Perrotta's readership understand just where the rest of the country is coming from with their Chastity Balls, intelligent design, pro-life and pro-death-penalty sentiments, and the overall blurring of the line between Church and State. In this, Perrotta was unsuccessful.

I read The Abstinence Teacher for my book club, and I'm sure they'll have a lot to say about it once we meet. I hope you do too.


Anonymous said...

I really enjoy reading your thoughts on books, I've even picked up some because of you!

"Those of you who have had sex with a male virgin can appreciate how thick the irony is here." had me laughing out loud.

It is interesting that when people write about a subject that touches close to them, they want to villainize the "others". As an author, it's a defensiveness that you wouldn't expect from something you create.

Dead Man Walking said...

I think you may have noticed the same thing I have. It seems whenever there are "Christian" characters in a book, they always seem to border on the cliche...they always seem to be some type of stereotype.

Of course, we're taught that characters are supposed to be 'larger than life', and a flawed, luke-warm Christian may be boring and a less than optimal source of conflict, eh?

Travis Erwin said...

Antoher good review. This one is sitting in my TBR pile but I'm not quit so eager to reach for it now.

I'm sure I'll get to it eventually, but it has moved down on the queue.

Linnea said...

Actually, your review has taken this book off my reading list. Thanks.

BookCannibal9 said...

I feel compelled to point out that this book has been chosen as one of the 100 Notable Books of 2007 by the NYTBR. That doesn't change my opinion of it, but it does mean there's probably a lot of people who disagree with me.

Merry Monteleone said...

I don't know why I never found your blog before, but I thought this was a very interesting and thorough review. This one wasn't even on my to be read list, though I might take a gander at the library just to see.

The thing with religion is that very few people can approach the subject without bias, even in fiction. Like you, I wish that whatever the speaker's personal beliefs, they could approach the other religious views with at least a bit of respect and reverence, but it doesn't often happen.

I'd like to see a lot more tolerance all the way around. The thing is, when a christian, of any denomination, says something stupid every christian, regardless of whether they even practice the same faith, gets painted with the stupid brush.

On the other side, when an atheist or agnostic says something equally assinine, their own reputation is the only one that suffers. It's part and parcel, when you refer to yourself as this or that religion anything you say or do after building the association colors the public's view of your faith - you really do represent the whole of your church in the world's eyes when you so adamantly claim that association... the louder, more obnoxious of the faithful should pay attention to that fact - how are they going to explain the amount of people they turned away from God if they actually make it to his throne at the end of the road? Besides, being a slightly more tolerant person of faith (I hope) I'm getting a little sick of feeling the need to wear a sign that says, 'Really, I'm not one of those!!!' below my holy medal.

Great review. I'm going to scout around and see what other books might be interesting here.

Anonymous said...

I think there is a great amount of approval for "anti"-biases in traditional NYC publishing when it comes to characters who have strong religious convictions, be they Christian, Muslim, Orthodox Jewish, or whatever . . . they like to promote works about the Elmer Gantries and hypocrites, but you never really read about the heroic priest any more--maybe because it won't sell. The heroic scientist must sell better. *(grin)*

But anyhow, I thought I'd mention that most theologians note that although if both Gandhi and Hitler died without accepting Christ, all that means is that at the final judgment, they will have to answer for their actions; a Christian won't have to, as he/she is forgiven and Christ will say, in effect, "This is one of Mine." Others must stand up for the final judgment. Thus Gandhi and Hitler are *not* stated to be equivalent, even though all sin is equally repellent to God. In Dante, there's a level of purgatory for "virtuous Pagans." *grin* I'll also note that if God had said, "Be good because it's the right thing to do, but I'm going to make exceptions because I can," then everyone might just sin and rely on the last-minute exemption, so of course the teaching will be "My way or the highway," in order to get people's attention. (GRIN)

This type of concept is actually a question to be argued in the seminary. That's kind of what that character said--that we could argue details forever, while that's not the important thing. The salient point is, what are YOU going to choose to follow . . . not what may have happened to someone else. "What is it to you if he should live forever? Follow Me." But of course if you ever read that in a novel, it would have to be one from a specifically religious-book publisher, or it would have to come in the ironic sense.

I prefer books in which you can't immediately predict the author's personal belief system. I'm a mass of contradictions myself ("I contain multitudes"--Whitman), so I tend to have characters who'll say all manner of things mystical and non-. Two readers may come away with completely different convictions about what my "message" was supposed to be, and I think that is a positive result. I made them think and examine themselves. That's what art is supposed to do.

danceluvr said...


Since when have you been with a male virgin?