The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I enjoyed Perrotta's recent novel - The Leftovers - so much that I started reading some of his previous novels. This was also masterfully done and I will probably keep going through his backlist. A liberally minded sex education teacher, Ruth, makes a comment about some people enjoying oral sex in response to a comment from a student. This comment gets her in very hot water with parents and a local church (the Tabernacle) resulting in a new abstinence curriculum being instituted. Ruth must teach what she doesn't believe to keep her job.
The other main character is the soccer coach, Tim, who leads a team that includes Ruth's daughter. After one game he, on impulse, leads the team in prayer. He is a member of the infamous Tabernacle after recovering from drug addiction. The prayer makes Ruth furious and starts a series of events questioning what is too much when professing and practicing your beliefs in the face of people who don't believe.
Religious belief is always a sticky subject and many relationships and friendships are destroyed during the discussion. I was very impressed with Perrotta's ability to show the reader that each character has a legitimate reason for believing and acting the way that they do. Just like life, having a good reason doesn't avoid the backlash, hurt feelings, and other negative results of your actions. Ruth had a good reason for her comment and Tim had a good reason for his prayer. Both of them are paying for the decisions they made.
Perrotta also does a good job of portraying the difficulty of someone who believes certain parts of a religion and the difficulty in trying to accept the parts they don't believe yet. Faith is a struggle and I appreciated this honest portrayal of Tim experiencing that struggle.
As with The Leftovers, the characters and situations portrayed in a traditional suburban neighborhood are spot-on. I, like many people, live in a suburban neighborhood and the genuineness of these suburban characters makes them feel real and helps me sympathize and empathize with them as the story unfolds. Great read - now on to the next Perrotta novel.