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The Abstinence Teacher (2007)

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3.23 of 5 Votes: 1
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0307356361 (ISBN13: 9780307356369)
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The Abstinence Teacher (2007) - Plot & Excerpts

This week I read the "New York Times Bestseller," The Abstinence Teacher, by Tom Perrotta. While not liking the book is one thing, hating it is another. I hated this book! I'm actually angry about it and it has been nearly a week since I pushed myself through it in two days. Two days is plenty of time since it would appear it took that long to write (although Perrotta claims two years). What surprises me is my anger. I think, through no fault of his own, it's because this IS a New York Times bestseller. Can we do no better than this? This book is so bad it makes me want to write because I KNOW I can do better -- but I would still be embarrassed to see my name on a novel only "better" than this one.So why do I hate it? Let me count the ways.1) Ruth Ramsey. Ruth is the main the character and the teacher named in the title. I really do not like this person. In fact, she is much of what I do not like about people. Now let me state up front that I do not need to like the character to like the book (see Updike's Rabbit), but I'm not sure why we are subjected to this person. She simply does not grow throughout the book and I doubt her future life will turn out any better. Once the renegade, super-cool sex ed teacher, she is now forced to teach a boring and unrealistic abstinence course after some right-wing Christians (and yes, there are left-wing Christians) sue the school. So she shows up the first day in a slinky outfit to quietly protest this change. This would be humorous if she was 16 years old, but when you hit your 40s, well, grow up! She is a lousy mother more interested in her own life than that of her children, a whiny school teacher and person, and a fierce hater of Christianity possibly due to the right-wing opposition to her sex ed, but that is never clear. Seriously, her children going to church terrifies her and they know it -- she does not support anything they do which she does not also like.2) Poor writing. I should have quit reading at Ruth Ramsey's reflection that in college "she majored in Psychology and minored in Doritos." Are you kidding me? Are there no editors left in the world. Who lets such a stupid line through! Apparently everyone since this book is full of such phrases.3) It's called a plot line -- follow it. Perrotta fills space with plots which begin and are either never resolved or leave us wondering why it was there. So she has a bad sexual encounter with her high school fling 30 years later. Why did we need to know this? What purpose does it serve? Perrotta had already reached the pulp factor in number of pages, so why torment us some more? Ruth Ramsey's daughters are interesting, but we'll never know how much because he primarily uses them as foils for Ruth; he starts a story line with them and just drops them off at the end. On a side note, I'm really wondering how they will handle the mother's final love interest. She is working hard to mess these kids up.4) This will add insight into the culture wars. Maybe this is where my anger really lies. In an interview with Perrotta at the back of my edition he is asked if this book will be a "grenade tossed into the culture wars?" He response includes "That's the part where you just cross your fingers and hope it's gonna happen." (He apparently speaks as well as he writes). I approached the book thinking this would be interesting. Teaching abstinence fails and all the research shows this. Perrotta has grabbed an issue which could make a phenomenal book and completely missed the chance. This book is not about culture wars, it is about some annoying people who have messed up their lives and will likely continue to mess up their lives. The battle over the sex ed is past history in this novel and we just get a quick summary. The woman running the new abstinence push is interesting, but there is no show down except for when Ramsey fails so often she is reassigned (she should be fired -- people like this [stupid:] are dangerous to children and that has nothing to do with her attitudes toward sex). The closest we get to a showdown is when the coaches pray at the end of a soccer game a couple of times. Perrotta even tries to build up the climax (finally, I thought), but then the final praying scene does not even occur in the book. This is about culture wars? Sorry, wrong war.I'll stop here at number four, but I could go on (e.g. stereotypes, excess verbiage) -- I just need to keep this book from wasting more time in my life.So is there anything good about the book? Hmm...Tim Mason is an interesting character and (gasp!) he actually evolves in the book. He is supposed to be other half of the culture war, representing the right wing Christian angle. A recovering addict to several addictions his new found faith offers him some support, but even more guilt. But he is humble in his own way and in the end he is actually honest with himself. It is his humility and honesty which allow him to move forward while all the characters remain in one place.Now I may be alone on this one. The New York Times blurb says "Perrotta is a truth-telling, unshowy chronicler of modern-day America." Time calls him the "Steinbeck of suburbia" (that one really hurts) and nothing less than Entertainment Weekly chimes in by saying this is Perrotta "at his rock star best." I'm willing to go down alone if need be.And by the way, my oldest two are not off the hook for this. My oldest son gave it to my daughter for Christmas (mistake one) and my daughter thought I would like it (mistake two). My son is claiming the whole "I'm just the messenger" line, but anyone promoting this type of literature will need to spend extra time in purgatory. As for my daughter, lover of great classics including Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, and so many other great works -- what were you thinking! I'm so disappointed. Fortunately, I'm a forgiving person.

JESUS WANTS YOU ........ TO GROW A PAIR. Tommy, Tommy, Tommy! How did such a promising young literary stud like yourself turn out to be such an emasculated whore? When did things start to go so horribly, horribly wrong?Let me be clear. When I picked you up at the airport in San Francisco, it was with entirely clear-eyed, realistic expectations. Let's face it. I wasn't looking for the literary love of my life. Just a two-plane romance - enough to while away the time it takes to get from SFO to Madrid. Maybe a little bathroom nookie during my stopover in Dulles. And believe me - I'm no snob about this shit. I think there's everything to be said for the fleeting joy of airplane lit. Done right, it can be one of life's great pleasures. And the possibility can never be ruled out that it may lead to a deeper and more passionate commitment. I mean, look at Nate and Brenda in "Six Feet Under", and how well it worked out for them. Even the briefest of airport bathroom encounters is pregnant with possibility.So I'll admit to a certain nervous excitement as I boarded the plane at SFO, your manly bulk in my pocket, pressing against my crotch in mute promise of pleasures yet to come. And for the first 20 pages or so, you didn't disappoint. There was wit, a sense of direction, a certain ability to nail characters with brisk efficiency within a couple of snappy paragraphs.But I should have heeded the warning signs that were obvious right there in the book store. Even if the appalling cutesy biographical sketch could be excused as a horrendous contrivance foisted upon you by your publicist, there was that truly worrisome 'author portrait', which presumably you had to have approved at the very least. You know the one I'm talking about. The one where your desperate need to be liked permeates every line of the simpering come-hither rictus of a wistful little-lost-geisha-boy pout that you project to your potential johns. It might as well have been subtitled "me make you happy long time". Did they teach you that at geisha school, Tommy? To try to be all things to all men? Because, here's the thing, eunuchboy. Let me let you in on a little secret. Nowadays even the sweatiest of Japanese salarymen no longer finds the response "Who would you like me to be?" even faintly arousing in answer to the question "Who are you?".So that, when your thin excuse for a bold courageous novel touching on polemic issues degenerated into an incoherent mess of not wanting to offend anybody under any circumstances, frankly my frustration increased in direct proportion to the flaccidity of your prose. What was particularly weird was that you were hardly fooling anyone with your lethally boring 150 pages of padding trying to cover up the moral vaccum at the heart of your cardboard ex-stoner Jesus freak. And what about plot, Tommy? Do castrati get a pass? WARNING....... POSSIBLE SPOILER AHEAD .... BUT ONLY IF YOU ARE REALLY, REALLY STUPID ... AS STUPID AS THE AUTHOR ... WHICH SEEMS UNLIKELY ...Or is that what passes for resolution these days? Fading to black as hormonal Barbie and stoner Ken get it on. Despite the well-documented lack of genitalia of said eponymous action figurines. And apparently of the author of this excessively wordy piece of trash of a book, devoid of almost any smidgen of intellectual content. Guaranteed to offend nobody. Unless, of course, you have a brain.

What do You think about The Abstinence Teacher (2007)?

I started this book more of curiosity and certainly I never thought it would be a page-turner. The story revolves around two characters - Ruth Ramsey, an agnostic sex education teacher in a not so conservative northeast US town and Tim Mason, a former rock bassist with a history of drug and alcohol abuse who has recently found Jesus and the way their paths cross. It has all the ingredients of a good book: original story; dynamic, multi-layered characters, controversial subject and a lot of food for thought. Most impressive of all - Tom Perrotta does not take a side, with a surgical precision he gives equal voice and creditability of both the evangelical Christianity and the secular agnostics. No fingers pointed, Perrotta does not draw easy conclusions. And that is the ultimate respect towards the reader. Highly recommended.
—Angel Strandjev

After LITTLE CHILDREN, this book seems totally light-weight. Definitely not a bad book, but the characters were painted a little too broadly for my tastes (Ruth's gay best friends, for example, or the stereotypical "ms. perfect" abstinence pusher).Perrotta tries his best to present both sides of the religious debate as equally valid, but his heart really isn't in it (not that I blame him). While none of the religious characters come off as complete left-wing stereotypes, none of them come off looking particularly wonderful either... not that the other side (Ruth) ends up looking much better.I think my biggest regret about this book is that we never see the second half of Tim's "growth," so to speak. Tim is by far the most complex and interesting character in the book, and at the exact moment that Tim seems poised to have to deal with all of these issues he's brought up in his life and the results of the decisions he's made, Perrotta slams on the brakes. I just happened to come across this quote from Nick Hornby while reading his blog tonight:"Tom Perrotta, the author of Little Children and Election, has written a very good novel about liberalism versus Christianity entitled ‘The Abstinence Teacher’. It’s funny and convincing and timely, and anyone who is mystified by the state of the States should read it when it’s published here next year. You won’t find any answers, because there aren’t any. But you might end up understanding a little more."I disagree on the "convincing" part, and while I obviously think less of the book than Hornby does, I do think it's worth a read.

Ugh. Don't even bother.In fairness, the premise seems interesting enough: evangelical(ish) church places roots in a town and begins to change the landscape as it grows. Told mostly from two points of view, the story centers around Ruth, a divorced health/sex ed teacher (forced to become an abstinence ed teacher) who has a daughter on a local soccer team, and Tim, the divorced coach of the soccer team who is a former addict turned born-again-Christan and member of the large church. When the coach begins praying with the girls on the soccer team after a game, several parents become angry and the storyline looks as if it's being set up for some sort of moral church/state climax. Instead, the storyline ambers along aimlessly, petering out before anything is really said.There are some good things here that I wish had played a bigger role. While Ruth's post-divorce barren sex life isn't interesting at all, Tim's struggle with questioning his relationships with God, his new wife, and the church is much, much more compelling. Why isn't there more of that? Another example is the relationship between the children, their parents, and the church . . . Ruth has two daughters, both of whom end up going to the controversial church with parents of a friend. On the flip side, Tim's daughter increasingly wants less and less to do with the church, and he is apparently forbidden to get her involved as part of the custody agreement with his ex-wife. But the interesting threads seem to have been lost among other ones, such as Ruth's gay friends who end up breaking up and getting back together with a plan to get married in Massachusetts. It added nothing to the story except for a couple of opportunities for the author to insert the fact that Tim never had a problem with gay people. I'm okay with unresolved or ambiguous endings, especially if they cause you to think about the book long after you've put it down. Focus on the journey, not the destination, right? The end of this book, however, felt like a cop-out. Why take on the big issues if you're not going to take the characters through them? What a waste of three days.

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