CBR-V Review #18: The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta

Why I Read It: I loved The Leftovers, so when I was finished with it I wanted to stay on my Perrotta kick and picked this up because it was the only book by him available at my library.

My Rating: 2 stars

Summary: Ruth is a single mom and a health teacher at the local high school, who recently got into big trouble for implying that sex can be an enjoyable act. As a liberal feminist, she’s annoyed by the conservatives who are, as she sees it, imposing their religious views and warped perspectives on sexuality on the school, town, and country as a whole. On the other side of the political/moral spectrum is Tim, a soft-spoken ex-addict who has found Jesus and believes it’s his duty to spread the word of God throughout the community. The two clash and come together over the course of the novel, grappling with simultaneous mutual attraction and opposing views on just about everything.

My Review: I didn’t like this book. Normally I think Perrotta is a master of creating complex, nuanced characters who occupy a moral grey area–they, just like real people, can be good or bad. His portrayals of American suburbia are among the best ever written, in my opinion. But here, he fails miserably. I felt like this book was poorly thought-out and it seemed like he’d just rushed through writing it, because all of the complexity was gone. These are broadly-drawn characters, black and white and completely stereotypical. The path of the story is clear from the first chapter and there is no ambiguity or surprise in the plot. Perrotta’s usual humor and satirical eye are present, but watered down. This is just a pale, uninspired imitation of his best work.

Where the book really failed for me was in its characters: I disliked every single one. I found myself rolling my eyes whenever Ruth appeared on the page, even though I share most of her political views. Tim was slightly more interesting, and I think it was a smart choice to feature a character who holds beliefs so completely different from Perrotta’s, but ultimately he was just kind of boring and didn’t come to life for me. These characters could have been so fascinating (I don’t think I’ve ever read a book from the perspective of an Evangelical Christian, and some of Tim’s grapplings with his faith had the potential to be incredibly moving and interesting) but again, there was no complexity. I knew exactly where they were coming from and where they were headed, and that lack of depth made it very difficult for me to enjoy this book.

I think it’s a topical novel and one that could have really been important and interesting given our current political climate, but it ultimately felt really half-baked and didn’t seem to come to any meaningful conclusions. Perrotta was seemingly the ideal author to take on this subject, which is why I’m confused as to how he failed. It’s disappointing, because again, he had a lot to work with. At his best, Perrotta’s books linger with me for days after I’ve finished reading them, their emotional impact transferred off the page. This was the only book of his that I’ve had trouble finishing–hopefully his next effort redeems him.

Should You Read It? No. Perrotta has many other books that are far better than this one. Go read Little Children or Election instead.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s