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Not really very much about an abstinence teacher
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.