Tom Perrotta has the special ability to skewer his character’s inconsistencies and faults even as he has compassion on their plight in life. In The Abstinence Teacher, Perrotta once again displays his natural voice as a writer and moves the story along smoothly.
But this story doesn’t really go anywhere, and nothing revelatory occurs. In observing the issues of postmodern evangelicalism and sexual freedom, only Ruth and Tim seem like genuine people, with the rest of the story and characters feeling a bit stereotypical. Ruth’s best friends are two gay men who may have the best working relationship in the novel, and her two daughters are gaining an interest in Jesus even as their mom is being lambasted by the church. Tim is a recovering druggy and alcoholic who had to turn to Jesus to overcome his addictions, but is finding his new Christian wife lifeless and his pastor a bit overzealous. It’s just another day in relative paradises and hells where people attempt to “find themselves” and the only meaningful thing isn’t belief or unbelief, but finding a connection with someone in the mirage of content adulthood.
Despite its faults, I still felt for Ruth and Tim. The Abstinence Teacher could be a good book club selection (which is why it gets its additional half star). Diverse groups could benefit from hearing these characters’ thoughts and talking about the issues. Just as long as they abstain from assumptions and feel the freedom to listen and share.