Ruth Ramsey is a divorced mother with two daughters who teaches Sex Education (“Health”) at the local high school in the affluent town of Stonewood Heights. Ruth is a popular teacher with the students — known for her candidness, openness and practicality in teaching sex education. But then a newly formed Christian church in town — Tabernacle — and its charismatic but aggressive leader, Pastor Dennis, begin protesting Ruth’s style of teaching sex ed and file a lawsuit against the school district. Plunged into a controversy she doesn’t want and is mortified by, Ruth ends up being forced to teach a new curriculum based on abstinence and sanctioned by the Christian right. Angry but resigned, Ruth half-heartedly teaches the new curriculum under the watchful eye of principal, school superintendent and JoAnn Marlow, the Wise Choices for Teens liaison.
But when Ruth attends her daughter’s soccer game, she is furious when the coach (and Tabernacle church member) Tim Mason leads the girls in a post-game prayer. Fed up with the Tabernacle church interfering in her life again, Ruth publicly chastises Coach Mason and begins a crusade to ban prayer from the soccer field. But when Tim stops by to apologize and talk to Ruth, she is startled to find that he isn’t quite the person she initially thought.
Tim Mason is a divorced dad who has had a drug and alcohol addiction his whole life. It cost him his marriage, jobs, and custody of his child. But when Pastor Dennis found Tim and offered him a new chance with Jesus at his side, Tim was surprised to find that the Tabernacle church and Christianity is what he has been seeking. Supported by the church community and given a path to follow that keeps him from the temptations that have brought him down before, Tim starts to put his life together. Coaching the soccer team is his attempt to rebuild his relationship with his daughter Abby. He also remarries a fellow Christian from his church, Carrie, and attempts to live a good Christian life.
As Ruth and Tim struggle with their personal demons — Ruth with loneliness, teaching a curriculum she can’t believe in, her daughters’ growing interest in Christianity and Tim with his loveless marriage, sobriety and increasing disenchantment with the Church — they forge a tenuous connection that surprises them both.
I have a new favorite author and his name is Tom Perrotta! I loved this book. Not only does it tackle hot topics like sex ed, the separation of church and state, religion, spirituality and morality, it does so with a wicked sense of humor. You think and you laugh — in my mind, the best thing a book can give you. Although Perrotta is often irreverent, he is also not afraid to dig deep into Ruth and Tim’s pain. I admire the author’s ability to create flawed characters that are also relatable. Ruth and Tim are by no means perfect but that is why I loved them so much. They are purely human.
I love that Perrotta was able to sensitively talk about divisive issues and give both protagonists an opposing viewpoint, but he was able to bring them together in a way that feels natural and believable. Although Perrotta clearly seems to be on the Ruth’s “side” as far as politics, he does a wonderful job of presenting the good aspects of Christianity and what it can bring to people’s lives. Having the “pro-Christian” character be a former drug addict and rock musician makes Tim’s need for the church more believable than if Perrotta had chosen to have Pastor Dennis be Ruth’s foil.
I don’t usually like to quote blurbs on the backs of books, but I thought the one on this book just captured my feelings so perfectly that I’m going to include it here:
The Abstinence Teacher illuminates the powerful emotions that run beneath the placid surface of modern American family life and explores the complicated spiritual and sexual lives of ordinary people. It is elegantly and simply written, characterized by the distinctive mix of satire and compassion that has become Perrotta’s trademark.
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
My Final Recommendation
Personally, I loved this book and I plan on reading more by this author. However, I could see that this book might not be for everyone. If you feel strongly about certain topics — such as sex education, homosexuality, Christianity — you might not feel comfortable reading this book as it is often irreverent about these topics and challenges some of the typical Christian belief systems. (In other words, it definitely slants more toward the left than the right!) But if you are looking for a thought-provoking read that is well-written and has a wicked sense of humor, this book is for you!
Ruth After Witnessing the A Presentation by the Wise Choices for Team Liaison…
Either way, Ruth had to grudgingly admit to herself that she was impressed. JoAnn Marlow had somehow pulled off the neat feat of seeming sexy and puritanical at the same time, of impersonating a feminist while articulating a set of ideas that would have seemed retro in 1954, of making abstinence seem steamy and adventurous, a right-wing American variation on Tantric sex. It was a little scary.
Ruth Cooking Dinner One Night After a Tough Day (Note: I had to include this because I relate all too well to trying to come up with new ways to cook chicken!!!!)…..
Tonight was lemon-pepper marinade, a recipe she got from a book called 500 More Ways to Cook Chicken, which might more accurately have been entitled It Doesn’t Matter How You Dress It Up, It’s Still The Same Crap As Last Night or Eat Chicken Till You Die. Because there were nights when that was what it felt like, like you were just some stupid animal, put on earth to eat a few hundred — a few thousand? — animals who were even stupider than you were, then disappear without a trace.
Tim Struggling with His Christianity….
At one of the first Bible Study sessions Tim had attended after joining the Tabernacle, Pastor Dennis had proposed a simple test the men could use in case they found themselves in what they believed to be a morally ambiguous situation and weren’t sure how to handle it.
“All you have to do, ” he told them, “is to imagine Jesus standing right beside you, and then ask yourself, Would my Companion be proud of me right now? Or would He be ashamed? And you know what? Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time, if you have to ask the question, you already know the answer. You need to turn around and get yourself out of there!”
Over the past couple of years, Tim had applied this test on a number of occasions, and, for a while, at least, it had worked pretty much the way the Pastor had predicted. Tim’s Companion had been highly observant and easily alarmed. Lately, though, He seemed to be slacking off a bit, or at least becoming more tolerant of human weakness….but there were times when the Jesus by his side seemed no more helpful than one of his old stoner buddies from high school, the kind of guy who’d watch you screwing up, then just chuckle and say, Wow, dude. I can’t believe you did that.