three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
32-Jan-Feb-2008
By: 
Tom Perrotta
user_rating: 
0

A-The Abstinence TeacherRuth Ramsay, a single mother and an ousted sex education teacher, and Tim Mason, a born-again soccer coach who found sobriety and religion simultaneously, seem like an improbable pair. But these types are ever more likely to cross paths in America's suburbs, the preferred setting for novelist Tom Perotta. His new satire relates the conflicts that surround both characters when they act on their principles and (perhaps) overstep their bounds. Yet the possibility of a relationship between the two, despite the rhetorical war surrounding them, speaks to the cultural bounds that exist-and that can also be broken.
St. Martin's. 368 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0312358334

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"While at first blush [Ruth and Tim] seem to be opposites, underneath they are just like the rest of us: flawed human beings trying to navigate a complex world. As the abstinence debate rages on in classrooms across the nation, Mr. Perrotta's book, albeit fiction, does the topic justice." Karen Thomas

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Perrotta] never condescends to modern suburbia-instead, he mucks around its corners, opens closets and reveals oddball secrets. ... But no matter how sympathetic his portrayal of the minister and his flock, he's writing for those who think it's OK to show teenagers how to put a condom on (a cucumber, just a cucumber)." Carolyn Kellogg

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Perrotta's efforts to make Teacher open out into some sort of commentary on contemporary society's culture wars are decidedly the weakest part of this novel. ... Fortunately for the reader, Mr. Perrotta is so adept at making us care about his oddball characters that Tim, however implausible his religious zeal may seem, gradually emerges as a sympathetic and engaging hero-an appealing foil to Ruth, who turns out to be not only a victim of [a] moralistic campaign against sex education but also something of a self-righteous proselytizer herself." Michiko Kakutani

Christian Science Monitor 3 of 5 Stars
"The Abstinence Teacher takes some obvious potshots: No one would accuse Pastor Dennis, Tim's spiritual leader, of being overly nuanced, and there's a Promise Keeper-type rally so hollow you could fit Jonah, his whale, and the whole city of Nineveh inside. ... There's plenty of wit and intelligence in The Abstinence Teacher, but it doesn't really break new ground in the dialogue between secular humanists and Evangelicals." Yvonne Zipp

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3 of 5 Stars
"Although The Abstinence Teacher lacks the gleam and the sharp edge of his best work, it has undeniable power. His two souls, lost in confusion, reach out in the darkness. What they find surprises them both." Daniel Dyer

Washington Post 2 of 5 Stars
"The Abstinence Teacher is certainly Perrotta's most sensitive novel. His portrayal of Tim-a good man struggling to find a moral code amid a thicket of temptations and extremists-is tender, witty and wise, but the novel lacks the necessary element of passion." Ron Charles

San Francisco Chronicle 1.5 of 5 Stars
"This is comedy, and love, after surmounting any number of major obstacles, will triumph in the end. Unfortunately, Perrotta seems rather listless in the execution of his plot, his prose is unexceptional . . . and the tone, which is neither sharply satirical nor enthusiastically comedic, seems slightly off." Alan Cheuse

Critical Summary

What would Jesus teach? The answer to that question-or more accurately, whether it ought to be answered at all-has provided an ongoing battle in America's so-called culture wars. According to most critics, Tom Perrotta, author of Election (1998) and Little Children ( 3.5 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2004), successfully draws his characters out of the trenches in The Abstinence Teacher, but he makes no progress toward redrawing the battle lines between the evangelists and the liberals. Critics' opinions of the novel seemed to result from their expectations: some reviewers felt another send-up of evangelical America is just what we need; others found it cliche. Nevertheless, most remained engaged by Perrotta's likeable and complex characters.