Tom Perrotta, The Abstinence Teacher (2007)

My love affair with Tom Perrotta’s… books (no spicy revelation here) goes back to the movie Little Children, with Kate Winslet. I loved how he portrayed American suburbs (homogeneously white and well-off, probably North-eastern) and the feeling of emptiness in a golden cage. In a close parallel, the depiction of British well-off suburbia in Rachel Cusk’s Arlington Park had put me off. Perrotta’s approach is kinder to his characters, bitter-sweet and laugh-out-loud funny when he decides to be satirical. But if you don’t like that theme, give The Abstinence Teacher a pass, because it’s the same world all over again.

Except that on top of it, he adds Born-again Christians, and the explosive confrontation of sex education and religion. I won’t enter this debate because as a European, and [full disclosure] atheist on top of that, I’m certainly too far away to have an informed opinion. Religion (and sex) just don’t have the same inflammatory role in French society as in America. Evangelist Christians are a tiny minority here, and society is so secular that a prayer on the football field would just be unthinkable, as would the hijacking of sex-ed programs in high school by abstinence supporters. [On the downside, I barely remember receiving any sex-ed information in high school except for the reproductive system of the fly]

It was a little after six on Friday evening, but already Bombay Palace was packed, the entrance overrun with cranky families who’d just been informed that they’d have to wait half an hour for a table at the town’s only half-decent alternative to Applebee’s. Tearing off a piece of alu paratha, Ruth registered a flicker of pleasure at her own free agent status. Is was one of the few compensations of divorce, she thought, the one night a week when Frank took the girls and she was able to do what she wanted, no babysitter to pay, no one to report to when she got home. A perfect opportunity to be bad, if she’d had anyone to be bad with.
“Look on the bright side,” Gregory told her. “At least you’re practicing what you preach.”
“I don’t think it qualifies as abstinence if it’s involuntary,” Ruth told him. “It’s just pathetic.”
“And it’s definitely not abstinence if a vibrator’s involved,” Randall added.
“You’re right about that,” she said. “The new curriculum clearly states that masturbation of any kind is strictly verboten. Apparently it’s habit-forming and interferes with your schoolwork.”
“Damn,” said Gregory. “So that’s why I didn’t get into Harvard.”

To me, Perotta is not on the evangelists’ side, but he has a respectful and in-depth view (except perhaps the sexy and ambitious “Virginity consultant”). He doesn’t make them any of them cardboard characters, they’re people of flesh and blood with a background, hopes and doubts. The path of Tim, the soccer trainer, divorced with one early teenaged daughter, ex-addict and alcoholic, ex-loser turned mortgage broker and member of the Tabernacle church, is not simple. His mother accuses him of “Using Jesus like a substitute for drugs, like methadone.” He wants to do the right thing for his daughter, to love his new Christian wife, but even books about Hot Christian Sex don’t help. Ruth, the liberal sex-ed teacher and divorced mother of 2 teenaged daughters is no less flawed. She compromises to teach abstinence in high-school even though she’s unconvinced. She’s shocked to find out that her daughters want to attend church. It’s “like the Invasion of the Body snatchers, or something. You never knew who they were going to get to next.” I found it funny and so true to life that children rebel in whatever way they can incense their parents, even by turning more conservative than them.

“Where’s Eliza?”
Frank jerked his thumb over his shoulder. Ruth turned to see her older daughter sitting at a picnic table beneath a fiery red maple that had already lost half its leaves. She was engrossed in a magazine, most likely a back issue of O or Martha Stewart Living that Frank’s lady friend, Meredith, made a point of passing along, knowing how much she enjoyed them. Ruth waved and called out a greeting, but Eliza didn’t notice – probably too busy boning up on recipes for low-fat crème brûlée or color schemes to beat those stubborn winter blahs. Ruth watched her for a moment, struggling against a combination of exasperation and pity that Eliza so often provoked in her. She was fourteen going on forty, for God’s sake. Wasn’t it past time for a little adolescent rebellion?

Certainly Ruth is more accessible to a European audience, but the whole book remains deliciously exotic to me, as if I were cruising the quiet streets of a Massachusetts suburb and wondering from afar about the strange rules of baseball. I’ve never met anyone like Tim, so to an extent he remains a totally fictional person. Of course, I get the references to Oprah, to Martha Stewart and others [although I confess an obscure reference to a “veejay cheerleader” totally lost me], from my personal experience and the global tv culture, but somehow this book reminds me of the persistent cultural gaps between both sides of the Atlantic.

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4 thoughts on “Tom Perrotta, The Abstinence Teacher (2007)

  1. I’ve been meaning to read Perotta for a while now and your comparison to Rachel Cusk’s Arlington Park is informative, I suspect I would really like Perotta’s vision and criticism.

  2. I read this post last week, but didn’t comment. Since then, I’ve thought many times about how this was so foreign to you. I understand why, but it led me to think about the pervasiveness of religion in the US. Certainly the Born-Again, bible-thumping abstience preaching fire brand of religion is something that I know exists. It is something that is very foreign to me, but I am aware of it, even though I choose to ignore it much of the time. What I’ve thought about though is more subtle religousity in Amercian culture. I’m not sure that I would necessarily detect when there ISN’T a presence of religion. It is this absence of religion in Europe and in some circles in the US (unfairly named “the intellectual elite” by the ultra convervative (think Sarah Palin) right, as if education were a bad thing — I just don’t get it!) that scares these people and make them want to impose more of their beliefs on others. I suppose a world without their religous frame of reference is as foreign to them as a walk through Boston thinking about baseball rules is to you, but to them it is frightening rather than a mysterious adventure. Not sure if what I’m saying makes any sense as I’m still trying to puzzle it out in my own brain.

  3. BTW — one of the most memorable conversations I’ve ever had started with a Frenchman who spoke little English saying: “Thiz game, bazeball? It has no rules, oui?” And there followed a rather lengthy, wine-fueled discussion in both English and French (and you know how poor my French is!) wherein I spouted all sorts of tidbits, probably only about 1/2 that were accurate, about the mathematical beauty inherinent in the rules of the all-American game!

  4. Verbivore – from what you usually read I can’t guess if you’ll like Perotta but I definitely encourage you to have a look, especially as an American living in Europe!

    Cam -of course your comment makes sense! I understand that a world without religious frame can be frightening, but there’s something different about America and religion: it’s more emotional and also more public, more open. In France people are shy to say anything about religion even if they care about it, it’s intimate, almost a more delicate subject than sex!
    As for baseball, I don’t understand anything about it, but I know very little about soccer and even less about rugby. I’m afraid I’m a lost cause, but I’m all for cheering.

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