In the well-off northeastern suburb of Stonewood Heights, Ruth Ramsey is the high school Health & Family Life—that is, sex-ed—teacher. Her job is to shepherd the enclave’s adolescents on their glide path from affluent school to prestigious college free of pregnancy and STDs, by educating them in the ways of safe sex. Or at least it was, until members of a new fundamentalist church, the Tabernacle of the Gospel Truth, accuse her of advocating oral sex after she remarks in class that “some people enjoy it.” Embarrassed in the media and threatened with a lawsuit, the school district announces that the sex-ed curriculum will be redrawn by an abstinence group called Wise Choices for Teens.
Ruth, a divorcée, firm liberal, and prosex feminist, is now consigned to singing the virtues of crossed legs and zipped trousers. She can’t do anything about the change in curriculum. But she can do something about Tim Mason, a Tabernacle member she meets when their paths cross on the soccer field. Tim coaches Ruth’s daughter, and one morning after a hard-fought win, he gathers the girls for a prayer. Ruth witnesses the incident— they came after her job, now they’re coming after her kids—and vows to draw the line.
With this, Tom Perrotta, author of Election (1998) and Little Children (2004), sets the table for a satiric showdown between red and blue Americas. What makes The Abstinence Teacher affecting and generous, however, is the gradual revelation that Ruth and Tim are more similar than that dichotomy would suggest. Despite the title, the novel is as much or more about Tim, who proves to be the most nuanced character. Far from being an uptight proselytizer, he’s a divorced dad, a recovering addict, and an overall mess. He fell into the church by accident, filling in for a friend as bass player in its band, and while he suspects that he has simply traded addictions, he also believes that the Tabernacle’s unforgiving rectitude may have saved his life.
Now Tim has a job as a loan officer, a sweet young wife he met in church—the pastor’s wife helpfully gives them a book on “Hot Christian Sex”—and a chance to reconnect with his standoffish daughter, who also plays on the team. His postgame prayer, it turns out, was a one-time impulse after she escaped injury in an on-field mishap. The act makes him a hero to his pastor and a villain to Ruth (and to his ex-wife; their divorce agreement excludes him from their daughter’s religious instruction). In fact, he’s a confused man who’s not quite sure whether he believes but is terrified that not believing will kill him.
Ruth, meanwhile, is no icon of Strong Feminist Womanhood. Even as she works to get Tim disciplined by the soccer league for the prayer, she meets with him and finds herself primping to impress him. (“I’m pathetic,” she thinks. “I’d probably put on a skirt and heels for Dick Cheney.”) And as much as she preaches the gospel of sexual freedom and rails against guilt, she has her own checkered sexual history to work through; asked to do an abstinence-training exercise describing a sexual experience she regrets, she realizes that, strictly speaking, “she had no choice but to admit that she regretted most of the sex she’d ever had.” Her daughters, meanwhile, are rebelling just as Tim’s is—in their case, by asking to go to church.
The Abstinence Teacher is set sometime early in the second George W. Bush term, a period in which liberals felt besieged by an army of Bible thumpers. But really, both Ruth and Tim are outliers. Wealthy Stonewood Heights is the fat, complacent land of David Brooks books, neither a liberal enclave nor Holy Roller territory. Perrotta demonstrates a keen feel for the suburb’s dynamics, like the fact that the same middle-of-theroad, no-judgments tolerance that made the sex-education curriculum possible also makes it possible for squeaky-wheel Christians to overturn it. Ruth finds it hard to motivate even the Muslim and Jewish soccer parents to protest the prayer. In this suburb, it’s the best heeled who lack all conviction.
Perrotta’s well-observed satires beg to be made into movies, and have. In fact, The Abstinence Teacher comes presold (look for the Warner Independent movie, from the directors of Little Miss Sunshine!), and the book is sometimes self-conscious that its culture- clash premise seems made for the multiplex. Ruth observes that her encounter with Tim is just like “one of those corny ‘opposites attract’ narratives that were so appealing to writers of sitcoms and romantic comedies.”
Whether or not the book’s big-screen destiny is to blame, The Abstinence Teacher suffers from screenplayitis at the margins: The minor characters are sometimes drawn in broad strokes, like the lesbian teacher who “dresses like the lead singer in Sha Na Na.” The pastor who heads the Tabernacle is a bit more puzzling: Perrotta hints that he’s a feeling if uncompromising man, genuinely concerned for Tim’s salvation. Still, he’s ultimately a stubborn, righteous, and fairly flat character, who seems to exist mostly to drive the plot toward confrontation over the souls of Stonewood Heights’ children; Perrotta misses a chance to humanize him and show us what drives his extremism.
Overall, however, The Abstinence Teacher is a sharp and almost effortlessly funny comedy of morals, as deft at drawing its two central characters as at delineating the social forces that would make them into op-ed stereo types. Ruth and Tim may be complex individuals, but that doesn’t mean that they can overcome the simplifying political arguments that force them irresistably into conflict. On a personal level, they’re able to reach a kind of rapprochement, not in an “opposites attract”–movie kind of way, but by each realizing, with us, that the other is a wellmeaning, imperfect human being. They’re a damaged but not hopeless pair, neither stark red nor blue, but purple, like a bruise.
James Poniewozik is Time magazine’s television critic.