Book Club: The Abstinence Teacher

This month, the book club takes on the church, competitive girls' soccer, and, yes, sex in The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta.

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THE PLOT: A group of evangelicals have descended on sex-ed teacher Ruth Ramsey's Northeast town, and now the 41-year-old divorced mother of two is forced to teach a dubious abstinence curriculum; meanwhile, her daughters — one a star soccer player — want to join the church. Add to that her strange attraction to acolyte Tim Mason, and you have a perfect storm of suburban psychodrama.

LUCY(EXECUTIVE EDITOR): Perrotta kills two birds with one stone, writing a novel and the inevitable screenplay all in one.

YAEL(ASSOCIATE EDITOR): I had Tina Fey cast as Ruth from the first scene, when she walked down the hall of the high school with a latte.

LEA(FEATURES EDITOR): Yeah, I've never read a Tom Perrotta book before, and this was lighter than I anticipated. I didn't hate it, but the story felt a little dated to me, like, we had this conversation about prayer in schools maybe 15 years ago.

LUCY: But I think Perrotta is good at locating the tensions that threaten everything you thought was in place — in Little Children, it was a pedophile in Stepford suburbia, and in this book, it's sex-ed in the land of competitive girls' soccer. On the one hand, the subject matter for both books seems too obvious to be even remotely engaging, and yet in both cases Perrotta nails it. These are the things people fear, that overshadow their perfect life.

SHYEMA(ASSOCIATE RESEARCH EDITOR): My first thought when I started reading was, Perrotta is a liberal pushing an agenda. That it was going to be all these "normal" people against the "fanatics." But once he really gets into Tim's story, that he's this recovering druggie who turns to the church, you got an extra layer there.

LEA: I thought his take on religion was very heavy-handed. That scene where Ruth's kids go to church with one of the families in the community, and the parents are taking pictures of Ruth's kids all dressed up, was a bit over the top. I imagine going to church on a Sunday can be a mundane ritual for many people — just a commitment they have that they don't break, and it doesn't come with all the religious fervor.

LUCY: The thing Perrotta does quite well is get into the mind of a woman. When Ruth is watching one of her daughters' soccer games, he writes, "Watching them, Ruth felt a sharp pang of envy ... wishing she'd grown up at a time when sports were a routine part of a girl's life. She would be a happier person now, she was pretty sure of it." That struck me as an incredibly genuine lament of a woman of a certain age.

YAEL: Or when he writes: "Later, after Tim left, she realized — though maybe it was less a matter of realizing than of being able to admit it to herself — that she'd secretly been hoping to find herself enmeshed in one of those corny 'opposites attract' narratives that were so appealing to writers of sitcoms and romantic comedies." What single woman doesn't think that?

SHYEMA: So who would play Tim?

LEA: That guy from Thirtysomething, with the long hair and the scruffy beard. Peter Horton. Did I just date myself?

NEXT MONTH: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz (Riverhead)