The Abstinence Teacher

Book Reviews | Jul 3rd, 2007

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Author: Tom Perrotta
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 323
Retail Price: 9.99
Buy on Amazon.com link

As a preface, we here at ReadJunk don’t usually get advances of books, or at least good ones. Instead, we either get really terrible emo CDs or promotional advances of hilariously bad horror films. So the reason I was able to read Tom Perrotta’s newest book three months before it hits bookstores was sheer luck, I guess. I was perusing my favourite used bookstore when I happened upon an advance copy of this book for a mere six dollars. At first, I thought that I had just missed the release and it was already out, but then I realized that I had stumbled upon pure gold, in book form.

The Abstinence Teacher is definitely Perrotta’s best book yet, and further proof that he is the foremost author writing about suburbia. Like the rest of his novels, this one is based in suburban New Jersey, with this newest one taking shape amongst a tense conflict between the religious right and the idea of free speech. It centres around a divorced mother and sexual education teacher named Ruth Ramsey, who has come under pressure from a local church for her admission that some people enjoy oral sex. The church puts presssure on the school board, and Ruth is forced to teach abstinence using hilariously misinformed materials. Meanwhile, when attending her daughter’s soccer game, she is upset to learn that the coach, former junkie Tim Mason, is a born again Christian and member of the church. When he gets the students to pray together at the end of the game, Ruth chews out Tim, and thus begins a war of words, and an exploration into the influence of Christianity in modern culture.

It’s quite easy to see how natural a follow-up The Abstinence Teacher is to the critically loved Little Children. However, what is most impressive is that Perrotta’s writing and storytelling skills seem to have improved, and his craft has never been more poignant and funny. There were several moments that had me laughing out loud while in public, and despite the awkwardness, it only made me love the book more. The thing that Perrotta seems to have done best is create characters that are equally natural and cartoonish, that are both exciting and flawed. She makes her two main characters Ruth and Tim, almost complete opposites, and yet makes the reader simultaneously empathize with both while feeling slightly embarassed for them. Although Perrotta’s political allegories are quite obvious, they still remain somewhat ambiguous throughout; the book is as much an indictment on the religious right as it is an exploration of the idea of salvation in the suburbs.

What excites me most is that this novel is already in development to become a film. Perrotta writes in a natural and very visual style that has already leant itself to two wonderful films (1999’s Election and 2006’s Little Children), and The Abstinence Teacher has the chance to become a fantastic film. The only reason why I might say that a film would be ideal is because I had so much trouble putting the book down, constantly wondering what would happen next, getting involved with the characters and setting. It was painful to have to read it over the span of a few days. If you happen to pick it up on October 16, find a good couple days, because once you start, you won’t want to stop.

Bottom Line: Amazing and hilarious, Perrotta’s best book yet and further proof that he’s one of the best authors writing right now.
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