Sunday, January 10, 2010

Book Thirty-Four: The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta

My oldest son recently noted that I like most of the books I read. I would like to think this is because I'm open to all kinds of books and revel in my diverse mind. Of course, the reality is that I self select. I know what types of books I will like and I'm willing to read a few pages online before investing my time. True, there is the occasional one that slips in (see last week's blog), but this week brought home the reality of my "limited" tastes.

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.

Reading Challenges
See above. This book is a two-night read (and 358 pages) but I was pushing to get through it because I wanted to be done with it. After that it was smooth sailing and I'm already half way through...

Next Up
...Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen. Not a big memoir fan, but the reviews were good and she actually teaches at the school where I work. The first couple of chapters were laugh-out-loud funny and after the last two weeks I was so happy to spend time with the well written sentence.

Happy reading!


  1. i was intrigued after reading your review and checked this book out on amazon. looks like people are evenly divided across the 5 stars so you're not alone! after reading a few other reviews too i've decided i won't be reading this one. it's likely to make me too angry as i have a real problem with god botherers trying to force their beliefs on others and getting involved in education and politics. unless the book ends with all the nutters going to live on an island together i'm not interested. (i was raised catholic incase you are wondering, and strongly believe that everyone has the right to practice their own faith anyway they would like but just keep it to yourself).

  2. So I'm not alone! I should have checked Amazon since I often put my reviews there as well, but I think I was too worried it would be all positive.

  3. Ever since I read his other novel, Little Children--at a ridiculously low price at a book sale--I wondered if I shouldn't have bought The Abstinence Teacher instead (they were side by side, same low price). LC was such an underwhelming book, I'd been wondering if AT would've been the better choice.

    Now, having read your thoughts on it, well, I am regretting no more. :]

  4. Yeah, I didn't much care for this either. Perotta usually gets high marks and critical acclaim (especially for Little Children), but this one was a bomb. I actually liked Tim much less than Ruth. And I just didn't believe most of it. At least the time-commitment was minimal.