The Abstinence Teacher

Ruth Ramsay is the unwilling, titular character in The Abstinence Teacher. Ramsay, a former sex-ed teacher, landed herself the position after making the innocent remark that “some people enjoy it”–“it” being oral sex.

Ruth Ramsay is the unwilling, titular character in The Abstinence Teacher. Ramsay, a former sex-edteacher, landed herself the position after making the innocent remark that “some people enjoy it”–“it” being oral sex.

With those four words, Ramsay sets herself up against her town’s burgeoning population of fire-and-brimstone Evangelists. The school board’s response is placating. Instead of accurate and realistic curriculum, they institute a new lesson plan, one that teaches “no sex is safe sex.”

Ruth, a firm believer that her students deserve to know the actual facts, and that their own sexuality is not a bad thing, is horrified at her new lesson plans, which consist of nefarious statistics and sexual horror stories–and that’s only the beginning. As if the woman vs. town conflict weren’t enough, author Tom Perrotta adds a twist to the story through Ramsay’s relationship with her daughter’s soccer coach, Tim Mason.

Mason, a recovering addict and general loser, sparks an undeniable interest in Ramsay, who is a bit sex-starved and desperate. Unfortunately for Ramsay, Mason is married, and even worse, a member of the very church that caused her so much trouble. If the novel were a romance, this is where their conflict would be overcome by their obvious lust for one another. But this novel is not a romance. Mason and Ramsay’s

conflict, although underlined with sexual attraction, is again focused on the place of religion in the public sphere and the individual life.

Under this broad subject banner, Perrotta is able to touch on more than a few controversial subjects, such as gay marriage, divorce, and infidelity. He also seems to effortlessly bring to attention the struggles of parenting, finding mid-life romance, as well as finding redemption.

All in all, The Abstinence Teacher is engaging and entertaining–at least while you’re reading it. Somehow, once it’s over though, readers may be left with a sense of incompletion. It is almost as if Perrotta got tired of the story and ended it in the most convenient way possible. Ramsay never lives up to the crusader persona hinted at in the beginning of the novel.

In fact, her final actions are disappointing. Her fire seems to have gone out by the end–she is just a woman tired of fighting.

Mason at least seems to be on a good path at the end. The uncertainty in his future is true to the shaky character that Perrotta has developed throughout the novel. The conclusion could owe some of its discouraging quality to the fact that in the end, reason doesn’t beat intolerance and fear mongering. The abstinence program is maintained while Ramsay is reassigned to teach remedial math. Her best friends, a flamboyant gay couple, are moving to the more tolerant state of Massachusetts, and even her daughters are pulled into religion she doesn’t agree with.

The book’s conclusions lack the dynamic punch of its conflicts. Like so many other contemporary novels, it is believable to a fault. Ramsay’s exhausted acceptance of defeat is that of the outnumbered warrior. With two children to care for, and few career options, her surrender is inevitable. But that doesn’t make it any less frustrating as a reader.

Perrotta initially inspires one to fight the good fight, to further knowledge against ignorance, but later fizzles out, nearly sending the message that it’s a losing battle instead. He is saved from that disturbing conclusion (barely), through Mason’s character. Throughout the story, Mason exemplifies the “baby steps” mantra, as he slowly brings himself towards peace of mind.

Because of Mason, the ending is just a mild letdown, rather than a complete disaster. Yet, for all of his novel saving ability, he is not the most likable character. He, like The Abstinence Teacher itself, leaves a disconcerting aftertaste. There is an unusual wake-up at the novel’s end.

Perrotta draws his readers in with subtle skill, only to leave them wondering why at the finish line. The Abstinence Teacher is a dubious pleasure, and all the more fascinating because of it.

The author has achieved what tabloid newspapers and gossip magazines are renowned for, with only half of the tacky and cliched drama. This particular work is definitely not the stuff of the National Book Award. Pick it up to satiate the need for light scandal. It might not be the satisfying escape from the all-too-real intolerances and frustrations of life, but it will make you laugh. And don’t worry too much about the dissatisfying conclusion. Aside from a few of the funnier situations, the book is not that memorable.