The Abstinence Teacher

Paperback | September 30, 2008

byTom Perrotta

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“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.
(p. 11)

Thanks to an off-hand remark made during a class discussion of oral sex, sex-ed teacher Ruth Ramsey finds herself a target of the Christian evangelicals who are increasingly influencing the schoolboard of suburban Stonewood Heights. Forced to attend remedial sessions with a smug “Virginity Consultant,” Ruth is isolated and alone, caught in the polarized red-versus-blue landscape of present-day American suburbia. It’s like “living in a horror movie,” she thinks, “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or something. You never knew who they were going to get to next.” Divorced and sharing custody of her daughters with her ex, and sometimes attempting a futile date, Ruth spends many a lonely weekend wondering how her bleak existence came to be.

Then one morning at her daughter’s soccer game, Ruth meets Tim Mason, a cute forty-something volunteer coach. Ruth feels an instant attraction to Tim, but when he draws the girls together for a spontaneous prayer circle after the game, she angrily yanks her daughter away from the proceedings, placing herself once again in the sights of the evangelicals.

But Ruth has another unexpected problem: she can’t seem to get a handle on Tim, her supposed adversary, who keeps appearing at her front door. A recovering addict whose bottoming-out cost him his home and his marriage, Tim found his way to the Tabernacle of the Gospel Truth through the intervention of Pastor Dennis, the charismatic preacher who put Tim’s shattered life back together in an approximation of happiness. Thanks to Pastor Dennis, Tim is now married to Carrie, a fellow Tabernacler who is attractive and attentive, if robotic. He plays guitar at the weekly prayer sessions in a sanitized reenactment of his days in a Grateful Dead cover band. He holds a respectable if unfulfilling job as a loan officer, well aware of the irony of the post for a man with his history. He is grateful for the help he has received from his church community and Pastor Dennis. But he can’t shake the yearning for something more, and a nagging attraction to that troublesome sex-ed teacher....

With The Abstinence Teacher, Tom Perrotta wades into the murky waters of contemporary American suburbia, fully deploying his proven gift for describing the panic lurking beneath its seemingly placid surface. Already widely known to book and movie audiences for his scathing satire mixed with remarkable compassion in works including Election and Little Children (both adapted for film, Little Children garnering Perrotta an Oscar nomination), this novel once again proves, as declared by the Los Angeles Times, “Perrotta’s balance of humor and pathos has no equal.”


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From the Publisher

“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. (p. 11)Thanks to an off-hand remark made during a cl...

From the Jacket

“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. (p. 11)Thanks to an off-hand remark made during a cl...

Tom Perrotta is the author of five previous works of fiction: Bad Haircut, The Wishbones, Election, and the New York Times bestselling Joe College and Little Children. Election was made into the acclaimed 1999 movie directed by Alexander Payne and starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon. Little Children was released as a movie...

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:368 pages, 8 × 5.2 × 1 inPublished:September 30, 2008Publisher:Random House of CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:030735637X

ISBN - 13:9780307356376

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Customer Reviews of The Abstinence Teacher

Reviews

Rated 3 out of 5 by from Not as Bold as I'd Hoped Ruth is a sex-ed teacher in a small town that is becoming more and more Christian with every passing day. During class, Ruth says that some people may enjoy oral sex, and this triggers the school board to take an abstinence only approach to sex-ed. Ruth is feeling powerless and frustrated by this, so when she sees her daughter’s soccer coach, Tim, doing a group prayer with the kids, she gets livid. Tim, a born again Christian and former drug addict, feels like there is something missing in his life. His encounter with Ruth leaves him feeling confused by his attraction to her. The Abstinence Teacher examines how evangelical Christianity influences the town and its residents. The premise on which this novel is based evokes some strong feelings in a lot of people. I liked the slightly controversial nature to the story, but I felt like the author could have been a little bolder about it. The novel started off strongly with its introduction of Ruth because it presented her as a strong woman who was still aware of her sexual appeal even after her divorce. I really liked these qualities. The contrasting views that each character had on the subject of Christianity and what part it should play in life was presented well, and I thought fairly. There was good amount of humor added in to keep the story interesting rather than overly serious. At the beginning, I felt that Perrotta had a clear vision and a strong direction regarding the points he wanted to make in the novel. As the novel progressed though, I felt that he lost his momentum a bit. The insightful, sometimes comical observations that Perrotta made were broken up by scenes describing soccer games that Ruth’s daughter played in and Tim coached which I found to get rather dull. I also became a little frustrated by the character’s inability to clearly see what the problems in their lives were and react appropriately. I suppose that is realistic because it’s hard to be objective about your own life, but it was irritating none the less to watch particularly Tim make decisions that in no way would help his situation. The ending felt like a compromise to me. It seemed to me that there was a lot more that Perrotta may have wanted to say through his characters, but for whatever reason he toned it down to a milder version. Ruth seemed so strong in her convictions at the start, but by the end she lost the unyielding strength that I so admired. I really had hoped for a more potent, aggressive message. The message I did take away from it was a weak one about not forcing one’s views on others. I’d still recommend reading it, but go into it without expectations because they probably wouldn’t be met anyway.
Date published: 2010-01-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Highly enjoyable read When Ruth Ramsey, a high school sex education teacher in a small community promotes safe sex in her class, she inadvertently offends the local evangelical church. To appease the church, the school decides to replace the current curriculum with one that focuses upon abstinence. Tim Mason, a member of the church and Ruth’s daughter’s soccer coach, leads the team in a prayer following a game one day, thus infuriating Ruth. What begin as innocent actions quickly unravel the town’s tenuous harmony placing Ruth and Tim in the roles of reluctant adversaries, until they have the opportunity to get to know each other. In The Abstinence Teacher, Tom Perrotta examines the complexity of family relationships while also exploring the ways in which we can inadvertently violate the beliefs of others when we do not reflect upon our own behaviour. His ability to delve into the lives of ordinary people provides a refreshing depth to the characters in this particular novel while helping the reader to understand the motivation for each character’s actions. Perhaps most gratifying is his ability to allow the story to remain complicated and somewhat incomplete in a way that is reminiscent of the “real world”. The Abstinence Teacher is a truly enjoyable read which will make you think about the relationships in your own life and the impact of your choices on those around you.
Date published: 2009-08-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A witty book!!! This book is an enjoyable read, filled with lots of humour and intelligence. The book revolves around two main characters - Ruth who is a middle-aged single mother of two, a sex-ed teacher at the local high school, who has issues with organized religion. The other character is Tim, a "born again" christian. a former drug-addict who has found religion and trying to turn his life around. The two clash, but the book is more about human nature and the need to feel acceptance by others in your life, while standing up for what you believe in. This is the first novel I've read from Tom Perrotta. I will check-out his other books now that I've read this one. He is an excellent writer, that gives a lot of insight to human nature with humour and fun. A very good book.
Date published: 2009-08-09

Extra Content

Bookclub Guide

1. Reviewers have noted Perrotta’s gift for creating an ensemble of characters who are flawed but innately likeable. Is there a primary protagonist in this book? What are the strengths and flaws of each character? Do you have a favourite character?2. Perrotta writes of Ruth’s approach to Sex Ed that “She believed — it was her personal credo — that Pleasure is Good, Shame is Bad, and Knowledge is Power; she saw it as her mission to demystify sex for the teenagers of Stonewood Heights” (pp. 13-14). Discuss the way Perrotta portrays the opposing ideologies in this novel, for example Ruth’s “credo” versus the Tabernacle’s “Gospel Truth.” Does either side “win” in the end? Are these sides portrayed fairly?3. Ruth takes public stands on sex education and religion, but in smaller matters, such as her friend’s decision to take her husband’s surname, she decides not to weigh in: “she kept this opinion to herself, having learned the hard way that you could only lose by taking sides in matters as basic as this.” (p. 6) What is your opinion on when to bite one’s tongue with friends? What is the cost to Ruth of asserting herself on the larger public debates? Are there benefits?4. Midway through the book, Tim thinks about how he enjoys the all-inclusive community of the Tabernacle. (p. 139) Is the Tabernacle really all-inclusive? What is the significance of community in this novel?5. Though Pastor Dennis has advised Tim to imagine Christ at his side in times of crisis, he visualizes Christ as a too-permissive friend and falls back on imagining Pastor Dennis instead. (p. 239) What do you think is happening here, and later when Tim hears the voice of God? (p. 354) Has the Church had an overall positive or negative impact on Tim’s life? Is it an effective solution to his addictions in the long term? Did the depiction of Tim’s religious life feel real to you?6. What is it that really draws Ruth and Tim together? Consider what Ruth writes in the seminar about making mistakes, and worrying that when she someday lies on her deathbed she’ll be “wishing I’d lived when I had the chance.” (p. 264) What do you think Tim would think about what she says? What do you think?7. “She’d secretly been hoping to find herself enmeshed in one of those corny ‘opposites attract’ narratives that were so appealing to writers of sitcoms and romantic comedies. The formula was simple: You brought together a man and a woman who held wildly divergent worldviews – an idealistic doctor, say, and an ambulance-chasing lawyer – and waited for them to realize that their witty intellectual combat was nothing but a smoke screen, kicked up to conceal the inconvenient and increasingly obvious fact that they were desperate to hop into bed with each other.” (p. 183) How is this book similar to this formula? How is it different? Does the romance between Ruth and Tim remind you of any other novels you’ve read?8. At the Faith Keepers conference, Brother Biggs instructs the congregants to define and write down their “GREATEST FEAR.” (p. 342) What do you think Tim’s answer means? What did you think of this exercise? Would you be able to distill your answer into something printable on an index card?9. A review of this book in the New York Times cites Perrotta’s “pitch-perfect ear for dialogue.” What was your favourite bit of dialogue in this book? What rang for you as the truest, or funniest, moments?10. Were you surprised by the ending? What do you think will happen with Ruth and Tim?11. What are your thoughts about sex education and today’s youth?12. Perrotta is adapting this novel for film, as he did for two of his previous novels, Election and Little Children. If it were up to you, which actors would you cast in the primary roles?

Editorial Reviews

Praise for Tom Perrotta and Little Children:A New York Times, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe and BookSense bestseller:"Extraordinary . . . at once suspenseful, ruefully funny, and ultimately generous."—The New York Times Book Review"Perrotta is that rare writer equally gifted at drawing people’s emotional maps . . . and creating sidesplitting scenes. Suburban comedies don’t come any sharper."—People"A virtuoso set of overlapping character studies."—The Washington Post"A precise and witty evocation of the sweet, mind-numbing routines and everyday marital conflicts . . . an effervescent new work."—Entertainment Weekly"Perrotta wisely refuses to condescend to the world he satirizes, and his masterful perspective provides the reader with a breezy omniscience over the characters’ failures in life. The book is disarmingly funny but rueful . . . a brave novel."—Esquire"…has the same unputdownable quality as Little Children."—New York Magazine"Sex education, soccer and Christian fundamentalism make strange bedfellows in Perrotta's shrewd yet compassionate fifth novel…Ruefully humorous and tenderly understanding of human folly: the most mature, accomplished work yet from this deservedly bestselling author."—Kirkus Reviews"Tom Perrotta knows his suburbia, and in The Abstinence Teacher he carves out an even larger chunk of his distinct terrain…The book is rife with Perrotta's subtle and satiric humor."—Publishers Weekly"Perrotta deals with timely issues by having characters from different camps forced to confront one another. What results from these civilized exchanges, which feel so human in their complexity and confusion, is a more personal, inside view of how such tensions play out."—Library JournalFrom the Hardcover edition.