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3.2 out of 5 stars
The Abstinence Teacher
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on 24 May 2015
This is a novel set in contemporary America, featuring a sex-education teacher who is forced to adopt an abstinence-based curriculum when a new church starts making waves in the town.

The book is at its best when focusing on the titular theme of the abstinence teacher and the school curriculum. There are several amusing scenes dealing with the clash, such as this line where the under-fire Ruth imagines her eventual vindication: "In her mind it played like a Hollywood movie, Michelle Pfeiffer standing before an audience of earnest, good-looking teenagers, rolling a condom onto a cucumber as triumphant music swelled in the background."

Unfortunately, that storyline is only a small part of the book. The novel's secondary viewpoint character is Tim, an ex-addict who has turned his life around with the help of the church, and is now the soccer coach of a girls' team that includes Ruth's daughter. One of the novel's flashpoints occurs when Tim spontaneously leads the team in prayers after a game, despite Ruth's objections.

The core of the book is a weirdly implausible romance in which Ruth and Tim yearn for each other like lovestruck teenagers, despite being considerably older and wiser, and having nothing in common. I never found this storyline convincing or interesting, despite the author's attempts to make Tim a sympathetic character. (Although his church preaches against gays, Tim "couldn't get himself all worked up about the sin of homosexuality. It just didn't seem that bad to him." The viewpoint character is sanitised for the reader's benefit by making him conveniently disagree with one of the church's key moral tenets.)

The focus on the romance means that other issues are underdeveloped and unresolved. Despite this underdevelopment, the novel feels rather verbose, bogged down by excessive flashbacks and an over-large cast of supporting characters described at length. At times it felt like a soap opera. It could easily have been cut by 20% without losing anything important.

In the end, what I wanted was a book about an abstinence teacher's struggle with her school and her local church, with maybe a side-order of romance. What I got was a romance between two divorcés, one of whom happened to have a job as an abstinence teacher. I wanted something sparky and satirical, but I got something mundane and mediocre.
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on 3 April 2012
On the one hand, I'd salute Perrotta for his efforts to think through the issues surrounding the religious right in America, and particularly the issues surrounding sex education, abstinence only, etc.

However, all these good points were more than outweighed by the irritation that the book provoked. The characters are all pretty one-dimensional - even the slightly deeper main characters reacted in ways which seemed over the top and ridiculous at times.

Tim Mason was probably the most believable character, as an ex-addict and new believer, but even then some of the decisions he made I found pretty hard to swallow: for instance, marrying someone because his pastor thought it was a good idea. The idea of a pastor peddling marriage between two people who barely know each other made me side-eye the character, but that anyone would take that advice stretched credibility to breaking point.

Ruth Ramsey is, again, mostly believable, but some of her reactions seem extreme, in particular her flipping out when Coach Tim makes the (admittedly ill-advised) choice to pray with his team after a successful football game.

The other characters seem to be very thin indeed, not one of them felt real to me. The representatives for abstinence education were flimsy stereotypes. As such it felt like a flippant dismissal of the subject, not a well-thought-out debate.

In addition to the annoyance from the characters, the plot itself just got very boring. There's a fine line between "realistic snapshot of life" and "dull" - sadly, for me this book was simply dull.

It's a shame, as Perrotta has some good points to make, and to his credit the viewpoint isn't completely one-sided. It would have been easy for him to portray all the Christian/abstinence/right wing characters as being necessarily wrong, and the more liberal ones as always right, but there was a certain amount of nuance. For example, one of the minor characters points out that Ruth is taking on about the praying when the kids repeat "under God" in the pledge every day.

His Christians, though generic and coming across as a rather homogenous, bland lot, are at least "kind and open-hearted". It is rather a shame though that the pastor seems rather unbalanced and often judgemental, but kudos to Perrotta for not making the entire congregation like that. It could have been better in that regard, but it could admittedly have been much worse.

However, the good stuff, for me, was drowned by way too much easy whitewashing of people into certain groups, and alarmist reactions. I imagine that some things would mean more to the American reader, but to me it was just all a bit shallow and unrealistic.

Overall, a good effort and maybe provides some food for thought, but overall very disappointing. I feel this is a subject which could be tackled in a much more interesting fashion with characters who have a little more depth. As it is, there were no twists that surprised me, most of the characters were irritating and somewhat one-dimensional, and despite it being a short book, it was a tedious read.
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on 17 October 2015
I was a little disappointed with this book. I thought it opened really well and I loved the first scene and what happened at the football match (it reminded me of 'The Slap' - the moral outrage and then looking at each character's perspective ) but then it kind of fell flat. Some characters were very thinly drawn (the character of JoAnn was just too ridiculous for words) and there really didn't feel like there was a satisfactory resolution. The pacing was out for me. Tom Perrotta has a nice writing style but in this case I think he had a good idea that then didn't make for a full length novel.
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on 21 February 2008
Tom Perotta manages to get across the fear and frustration felt by people with liberal values living in modern America in the face of an evangelical onslaught on their community; while portaying the central religious character as a likeable human being - no mean feat.

I couldn't put 'The Abstinence Teacher' down. It's written with a light touch which in no way detracts from the seriousness of the subject. This is the first of Tom Perotta's books I have read. It certainly wont be the last.
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on 15 October 2009
This novel is serious, but a page turner with humour too. A pleasure to read from start to finish.
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on 11 August 2013
Divorced mother-of-two Ruth Ramsay teaches sex education in High School. The Christian right moves into her community and she now has to teach abstinence, which she can't. Eventually she is moved to remedial maths but that is not the story. At the same time her daughters become interested in Jesus, which she struggles with, but that is not the story. She is lonely and looking for a man - that's the story. Divorced father-of-one Tim Mason is a reformed alcoholic and born-again Christian. His daughter is put off by his new religion and their brief encounters are becoming frosty. He is also lonely. Much of the book is about girls soccer - Tim coaches a team of 10 year olds including his own and Ruth's daughters. Tim brings his religion to the team by calling for a prayer circle after a game, which brings him into conflict and contact with Ruth. The author explores fundamental Christianity quite well. He does demonstrate that it can help change lives (such as Tim's) but is also narrow and intolerant of human failings and foibles and sexually way off. There are no real baddies here - Perrotta sees modern Americans as lonely and looking for love. It's a good contrast with Coupland who says much the same but lacks Perrotta's warmth and is not such a good storyteller.
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on 10 January 2010
Tom Perrotta explores a very interesting and relevant subject in this book. This is not simply a novel about sex education and the different attitudes towards it, but about the power of the Christian Right in America.

In an interview the author said that he was alarmed by the strength of the evangelical vote in the election of George W Bush, and the influence that this secular group of people has over politics in America.

Tom Perrotta has localised the Christian Right in the form of "The Tabernacle", a small church in the town of Stonewood Heights who gather their forces in an attack against a forward thinking sexual health teacher and the liberal ideology as a whole.

Perrotta also spoke of feeling a little embarrassed by his "not really knowing this Christian force that is so dominant in his home country. As a result of this, rather admiringly, the author does not simply point the finger at the extremist Christians in his book, rather, he employs time effectively, providing the reader with in depth anecdotes and analysis of the character's past, showing what may have led them to this way of thinking and how easily it is for people to be swept up by religious rhetoric.

As the book deals with a rather heavy, controversial subject matter, it is a relief that Perrotta balances it out with good humour. I found myself laughing out loud at some points in the book and appreciated how every time I picked it back up I could slip right back in to the story. It is a very easy read. I enjoyed most of the characters in this book, especially the female protagonist, and even enjoyed the more annoying characters such as JoAnn Marlow, whom I loved to hate.

I can't think of any real qualms I had with this title, but a book really has to knock the air from my lungs to get five stars.

Overall, I found this book to be pleasurable, funny and thought-provoking.
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on 20 October 2011
I got two thirds of the way through this book and realized nothing had happened except a couple of conversations about praying, there was no drama except someone falling over on the football field, and no romance except for a few old saddos wondering what life would have been like if they'd done everything differently.
I had been waiting and waiting for something, anything, to happen, but nothing ever did,
was actually bored out of my mind reading this.
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VINE VOICEon 11 March 2009
A visitor to the US, in perhaps too many areas, is likely to be as startled by the prominence of religion, or religiosity, in US life, no less so than the US visitor to Europe notes its relative secularism. It is not necessarily a simple blip on transatlantic life; it can have very real and painful consequences. Into health education, as here in Perrotta, creeps moralism in the form of the 'a, b, c' abstinence code promoted by the past president. Even before GWB, a surgeon-general of the US was forced to resign by indignant moralists simply for stating an obvious truth: better masturbation, say, than unwanted relationships. Senseless moralism had society by the throat, and so too here in Perrotta's novel, parodying the situation, but dangerously near the truth of the matter. Aimless, baseless, religious statements are imposed on every aspect of human life, sometimes disastrously. Yet, somehow, Perrotta carries off the work with good humour, with little reason for that good-will as the interview at the rear of the book demonstrates. For those now in their 50s or so, there will be painful recollections. The in-service training day is, he admits, a deliberate exaggeration, but not so very far from the truth. UK readers may well note a resemblance to the now repealed Sect.28 of the Local Government Act, which enshrined in law utter contempt for homosexual relationships. No prosecutions ever took place under this absurd law, which lacked even definitions, but that was not to prevent stigmatisation and impose a lingering sense of unease among educators in particular. Even after repeal, that insecurity lingers. And the protagonist's 'sin'? A passing, factual comment on oral sex, deliberately set by a moralists' daughter to trap her. This was to be expanded to the point of lunacy by prurient media. The situation is not at all unfamiliar, and is likely to remain so, as long as no firm border is set between god and government and between government and suburban prejudice. It has happened, and continues to happen, in reality. It isn't too difficult in today's US and elsewhere to imagine a rerun of the infamous Scopes trial, set in place by Creationists. But this isn't to understate the humour of some of the content that Perrotta creates, the hilarious quips such as one observer's comment, that a male-only religious gathering was like nothing more than a gay bar. This is well worth reading, for remarks like this alone.
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on 3 September 2009
I did enjoy reading this book and there were a lot of controversial subjects that were discussed in passing that lead to some good book club discussions. However, I felt that the book lacked a bit of "adultness" and the soccer scenes were not necessary and too detailed for a book like this. I also was not found of the authors responses about the end of the book. His comments made me feel like he really didn't put too much effort into it so I was a little frustrated with having made the effort to purchase and read his book.

In general, I wouldn't recommend the book unless you are reading it for a book club or someone gives it to you to read.
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