Don’t touch that! Not with your hands, not with your mouth. Not if it’s someone else’s, and no, not even if it’s your own.
These are hardly the lessons Ruth Ramsey wants to pass on to her high school students, but such are the responsibilities of “The Abstinence Teacher.” Ruth is the sex ed teacher in Stonewood Heights, which was once a typical affluent, blue-state suburb, full of educated parents, SUVs and Subarus, latte shops and well-attended soccer games. When a storefront evangelical church opens and makes ineffective sallies against Judy Blume books, evolution and “Happy Holidays” banners, Ruth finds it mildly amusing. Then she becomes a target by answering a question in class about oral sex in decidedly unsqueamish, Latin terms, concluding, “Some people enjoy it.” To ward off unwanted media attention, the town institutes a chaste curriculum. Ruth, a divorced, low-key mother of two, surrenders without a fight: She makes a public apology and agrees to teach abstinence, abandoning her credo “Pleasure Is Good, Shame Is Bad, and Knowledge Is Power.”
Tom Perrotta (“Little Children,” “Election”) brings this world to life with a few strokes. He never condescends to modern suburbia -- instead, he mucks around its corners, opens closets and reveals oddball secrets. It’s a kind, gentle satire -- one that gives equal time to its villains and its heroes. The evangelical pastor, for instance, believes he’s doing the right thing, even when he shows up uninvited on a parishioner’s doorstep to shield him from sin.
The sinner in his sights is Tim Mason, a reformed bad boy. Tim finds genuine solace in Jesus, has married a sweet Christian girl from church and doesn’t stray from the path -- except he can’t quite give up listening to the Grateful Dead. As we learn in one of the book’s long flashback sequences, Tim’s first career choice (rock ‘n’ roll) and his first marriage (to a knockout) ended in a mess of too much booze and cocaine. Now clean, he’s got a regular gig as a mortgage broker and maintains a relationship with his ex-wife -- who remarried up -- and their daughter, Abby. He even coaches Abby’s soccer team; he’s good at it, and the girls -- Ruth’s daughter included -- love him. It’s at a soccer match that Ruth meets Tim:
“It was embarrassing, she understood that, pining for your daughter’s married soccer coach -- oh, she’d checked for the ring; she always checked for the ring -- possibly a new low. Not that it was her fault. This was the kind of thing that happened when you went without sex for too long. After a while, any scrap of male attention -- a wry smile, a kind word, the faintest whiff of flirtation -- was enough to create a full-blown disturbance in your love-starved brain. A guy says ‘Excuse me’ in the supermarket, well he must be the One, your Last Chance for Happiness.”
The attraction grows cold once Ruth learns of Tim’s faith: She might be turned on by a married guy, but she can’t bear his being a Bible thumper. When she catches Tim leading the girls in prayer, Ruth blows her top. It turns out to be a small cliffhanger but a tense one, and Ruth and Tim seem destined to tangle again.
It’s a long wait. First we flash back to Tim’s story, a long history of spiritual growth flecked with occasional temptation. These chapters display Perrotta’s gift for character -- the gift, perhaps, that draws Oscar-caliber actors and directors to Perrotta’s work (as early as last February -- months before its publication -- rumors circulated of a film deal for “The Abstinence Teacher,” with the filmmaking duo behind “Little Miss Sunshine” at the helm). But in this book, the character development is a 100-page interlude before we return to Ruth and Tim’s soccer-match tussle, and then the encounter is more of a whimper than a bang:
"[S]he’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. . . . Luckily for Ruth, this ridiculous fantasy crumbled immediately upon contact with reality.”
Their joint story spools out in the book’s second half, with a fast-building momentum. But all that flashback is an unwelcome intrusion; just when we’re ready for narrative fireworks, we get storyus interruptus.
This strategy of delayed gratification may be entirely suitable for the tale it tells. Despite her progressive-slash-libertine philosophy, Ruth isn’t getting any. And beyond not having a sex life, she hasn’t got much of a life at all -- her job’s a disaster, she’s nice (but not necessary) company to her friends, and over and over she’s bitten her tongue instead of speaking out. Although the idea would be abhorrent to her, she’s the perfect teacher of abstinence: She embodies it. And Tim, who’s trying to abstain from sin, seems a perfect partner.
Perrotta’s balance of humor and pathos has no equal; he’s naughty and nice. But no matter how sympathetic his portrayal of the minister and his flock, he’s writing for those who think it’s OK to show teenagers how to put a condom on (a cucumber, just a cucumber). The sin is too attractive, the rewards of the church too fragile. The book, despite its bouts of frustration, really wants to be all hot and bothered.