I borrowed Tom Perrotta, The Abstinence Teacher (NY St Martin’s Press 2007) on spec from Surry Hills Library and have found it a delight, but more than that – aside from perhaps being a bit didactic. It is comedy of manners 21st century suburban US style rather than satire. It isn’t cruel enough to be satire. (I have in mind there, for example, Evelyn Waugh’s classic The Loved One, which really is rather bitter and supercilious, though laugh-out-loud funny.) There are very funny moments in The Abstinence Teacher, but the humour is more often wry and kindly. Even so, the novel exposes utterly the mindlessness that is fundamentalist moral thinking, especially but not only in the area of sexuality. It is also quite a frightening expose of the curriculum programs proposed by the Religious Right, showing that to regard such programs as “education” is a travesty.
On his own site Tom Perrotta describes the novel:
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.
Yes there are soccer moms (and dads), and a wonderfully drawn gay couple… I would seriously suggest Christians read this one; they may think again afterwards – at least I hope so. The book just may prove subversive in the benign way good literature often is. If you are not a religious person you will enjoy it anyway, so long as you don’t mind a book that is really quite suburban, but better and more believable than soap opera; many of your fears about the Religious Right in America will be confirmed as you read, but you may find yourself empathising more with people you might not otherwise consider… That can’t be bad.
This is a very wise, and often funny, novel.