Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta

The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta
Published October 2007 by St. Martin's Press
Source: I bought this one both in hardcover and on audio

Publisher's Summary:
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.  

My Thoughts:
Stonewood Heights could be the Omaha school district where we lived and raised our children, a place where we like to think that we're giving our kids one of the best educations public school dollars can buy. But woe be unto the teacher who might cross a line that he or she can't even see. Heaven forbid we be honest with our young people and ourselves. We see it again and again across the country in banned books, the removal of evolution from curriculum, administrations kowtowing to parents who refuse to admit that their little angels might not be lily white.
"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."
When Ruth uttered those four words, she stirred up the wrath of members of a new fundamentalist church in town, a church whose leader understands, as does Perrotta, that the louder you are, the more attention you'll get. When word reaches Pastor Dennis' ears that the sex education teacher in the local high school has actually said to the ninth-graders that some people enjoy oral sex, he spearheads a campaign that results in months of trouble for Ruth, who believes that young people should be armed with the truth and a all of the information they need to make an informed decision. The result is that the school district adopts a new program of sex education which preaches abstinence as the only form of birth control.

The idea for The Abstinence Teacher came to Perrotta after he watched the far right mightily impact the 2004 elections.  Perrotta took that idea and looked at it in a smaller context, in the suburbia he's known for writing about. There's nothing flashy about Perrotta's style, it's clean and real and believable. He doesn't pass judgment here, although I think it's pretty obvious which side Perrotta would come down on if made to choose. After all, Pastor Dennis is like Big Brother and the leader of the abstinence program is about as obnoxious a woman as you'll meet. But Perrotta challenges his readers to make their own choices. Has Ruth gone too far? Would more young people choose abstinence if it had a better image? Should it be the only option taught to young people? Should religious groups have a say in public school matters? How far can you push the middle before they take a stand?

The Abstinence Teacher would make an excellent choice for book clubs - but only if your book club is able to discuss religion without stirring up trouble. I listened to this one, narrated by actor Campbell Scott with mixed feelings and I'm not sure I'd recommend the experience. Pick up the book instead and enjoy Perrotta's subtle satire of the life so many of us live.


  1. I've had this one my shelves for YEARS. I've never read any of Perrotta's books, in fact. I guess I just like collecting them instead. Arrgh! I will read this book. I will not let another 5 years pass!

  2. I enjoy Perrotta's writing. I haven't read this book yet but it sounds really interesting. The religion and sex issues in a HS are pretty controversial. I guess these teachers aren't too good at leaving their personal lives at home!

    I'm glad you enjoyed this book. Thanks for a terrific review. You certainly piqued my interest!

  3. I marked this as 'to read' a while ago and then forgot about it, so thanks for the reminder. Think I'll recommend it to my book club... could make for an interesting discussion.