The Abstinence Teacher

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5

Tom Perrotta, whose books Election and Little Children were turned into movies, writes in a very cinematic style. His sixth novel, The Abstinence Teacher, features dead-on dialogue, an accessibly dark sense of humor and an episodic, momentum-building structure. While reading, you practically hear a film trailer’s voiceover in your head: Can a Christian with a taste for sin and a teacher with some learning to do…fall in love?

In the book, Perrotta dwells more on this question than its answer. It opens with Ruth Ramsey, a liberal-minded sex-ed teacher who’s fighting the growing influence of the Tabernacle, a local conservative megachurch pushing her to promote celibacy. Cut to Tim Mason, her daughter’s handsome soccer coach and a former hippie rocker who joined the Tabernacle after bottoming out in rehab. Both are raising children from divorces, managing unfulfilled libidos and searching for happiness in the verdant suburbs of New Jersey. What they find is an inexplicable attraction to one another, which shakes up more than just their stubborn world views.

For a story that often feels lifted from politically loaded headlines, it’s refreshing to find no antagonists. Perrotta’s characters have complicated desires and make difficult moral decisions. Even the dubious Tabernacle minister is depicted sympathetically.

Unfortunately, Perrotta falters when his plot grows too satirical; he winds up sounding preachy as he sends up those who preach. The Abstinence Teacher is only partially successful as a modern exploration of sexuality and spirituality in the American burbs. Stylish and slick, the book provides far more action than introspection.

Perrotta reads Wed 17.

By Tom Perrotta. St. Martin’s Press, $24.95.