The Abstinence Teacher

“I’ve made a few mistakes in my life,” Ruth began. “Some of them have involved sex, and at least a couple have been pretty big.

“It would be all too easy to pick one of these errors and tell you what I should have done differently, and how much better my life would be if I’d been mature and responsible enough not to have made it. But I’m not sure I believe that. I think it would be more accurate to say that we are our mistakes, or at least they’re an essential part of our identities. When we disavow our mistakes, aren’t we also disavowing ourselves, saying that we wish we were someone else?

“I’m halfway through my life, and as far as I can tell, the real lesson of the past isn’t that I made some mistakes, it’s that I didn’t make enough of them. I doubt I’ll be lying on my deathbed in forty or fifty years, congratulating myself on the fact that I never had sex in an airplane with a handsome Italian businessman, or patting myself on the back for all those years of involuntary celibacy I endured after my divorce. If recent experience is any guide, I’ll probably be lying in that hospital bed with my body full of tubes, sneaking glances at the handsome young doctor, wishing that I hadn’t been such a coward. Wishing I’d taken more risks, made more mistakes, and accumulated more regrets. Just wishing I’d lived when I had the chance.”

Ruth is a high school human sexuality teacher with a mission: to teach teenagers about sex, so that they will stay safe and be able to experience one of life’s greatest pleasures without guilt or fear. She doesn’t talk to them about when this should happen, acknowledging that for each person, it’s different. Some people want to wait until their married, others until they find someone they truly love, others until they find the right person to sleep with today. That’s not her concern. Her concern is dispelling the myths and mysteries about sex.

This concern bites her in the ass, however, when in the midst of a lesson on contraception, one of her students asks her comments about how oral sex is akin to French-kissing a toilet seat. Ruth replies that “from what I hear about oral sex, some people enjoy it.” That’s it. She doesn’t tell the kids to go out and do it, just says that it’s an enjoyable part of human sexuality, for some people. Of course, this backfires horribly, and the student who asked about oral sex has an agenda, and complains to her parents, who complain to the school, and the next semester, Ruth finds herself assigned to teach human sexuality with a decided mission: Abstinence.

Tim is a divorced father of one, a born-again Christian who was saved from his self-destructive alcohol and drug addictions by his conversion to faith. He is also a soccer coach, and one of his star players is Ruth’s daughter, Maggie. After an especially harrowing game, in which his daughter, Abby, is knocked unconscious and he fears she may in fact be dead, he invites the girls on his team to join him in a prayer of thanks. Ruth flips out and pulls Maggie from the field, and lines are drawn in the sand. The Christians vs. the faithless.

While Tim is pretty sure that he acted inappropriately by bringing prayer to the game, and is perfectly willing to let it go and not happen again, his church is thrilled by his actions, declaring him a brave man who is fighting the battle of the Lord. This puts him in a hard spot, because while he loves Christ and is thankful to be saved, he doesn’t take on the role of proselytizer very comfortably. Plus, his ex-wife is horrified, and threatens to go to court to deny him visitation rights to his daughter.

Ruth is a bit sorry she reacted so strongly as well, not wanting her daughter to have to give up the soccer she loves so much just to make a point that is Ruth’s point, not Maggie’s. And now, forced to talk to each other, they find themselves attracted to each other, even though Tim is recently married to a young woman from his church, and Ruth is horrified to find herself attracted to a ‘religious nut’, as she would call him.

Tom Perrotta draws his characters well and sympathetically, flushes them out and makes them read like real people, though not necessarily people you would want to hang out with for too long. They are all deeply flawed and opinionated. But you see the world from their side, and understand their motivations.

I’ve heard that the film rights have been purchased already, which is interesting to me. The drama never reached the crescendos that I thought they might, the characters never suffered as much for their actions as I thought they might, and the conclusion leaves a lot of consequences still up in the air. And there will be consequences. Much of the action in this novel is internal, not external, which makes me wonder if it might make a better indy sleeper hit than a big budget box office draw. Either way, I liked the book, though not as much as I enjoyed “Little Children”, which I found to be a much more thorough and well written book.

2 thoughts on “The Abstinence Teacher

  1. I found this novel uneven, but I did like the character of Tim — who was drawn with a good amount of authenticity. His backstory is one that makes for good drama. His relationship with Ruth was kind of forced, but it was one that furthered and eventually resolved the conflict. I would recommend this novel, but if, like you say, it’s not as good as Little Children, then I would start with Little Children and then read this one.

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