Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Completed: The Abstinence Teacher


I picked up this book a few days ago, hoping it would be a quick read. I guess I was right! I don't actually remember how long ago I bought this book. I definitely remember that I picked it up from the sale section of the Borders that used to be in my neighborhood. It was hardback but marked down to 5 or 6 bucks, and since I'd heard good things about it, I grabbed it.

The Abstinence Teacher tells the story of a small northeastern town. I kept picturing Stars Hollow, but I don't think it was quite *that* small. There are two main characters, the first is Ruth Ramsey, a 41 year old divorced mother of two. She's been the sex-ed teacher at the local high school for years. (I guess that's the clue that it was a bigger town. Not many schools that I know of have a dedicated Sex Ed teacher, that's usually just one unit in a larger health curriculum. But I digress!)

In the previous school year, Ruth got into some trouble with the local crowd of evangelicals. When a student asked her about oral sex, Ruth said, "Well, from what I hear about oral sex, some people enjoy it." Oops. This single comment causes the kind of uproar that could only happen in a very small town or in a novel. Ruth gets into big trouble and the pastor of the most conservative Evangelical church, Pastor Dennis, causes such a stink that the school is forced to adopt an abstinence-only curriculum.

Alternate sections of the book focus on the other main character, Tim Mason. Tim is the soccer coach for Ruth's daughter. Tim comes into the picture when Ruth witnesses him leading the team in prayer after a particularly close game. Ruth freaks out and pulls her kid out of the prayer. The next section is Tim's and it alternates from there.

It's in the first Tim section that I started to feel...uncomfortable...with the book. Tim is a recovering addict and born-again Christian. Pastor Dennis' church "saved" him, and it's clear that Tim feels much more confident and happy. At the same time, the author shows all of Tim's ambivalence. The author seems to be hinting that perhaps Tim has traded his addiction to drugs with an addiction to Jesus.

Part of the reason this made me uncomfortable was because it doesn't seem all that fair to Evangelicals. I don't know a whole lot of people (any?) who are born-again Christians, and so maybe I was reading Tim as symbolic of all Evangelicals. But it Tim is a symbol, then is the author trying to paint them as sort of a desperate, pathetic lot just looking for a way out? That doesn't seem fair. I'm guessing that like most people, BACs (Born Again Christians is getting burdensome to type out) are genuinely trying to live their best lives. At the same time, the message of BACs does center around the idea of "being saved." The language, being saved, implies that you are in trouble or have screwed up. Do regular people who think they are okay find this message appealing? As Ruth considers Tim, she thinks, "It made perfect sense to her that people who'd hit bottom would be attracted to Christianity and find solace in its message of forgiveness, the idea that it didn't matter how badly you'd screwed up your life, there was always another chance to start over and get things right. Where she always came up short was in figuring out how that part of the religion coexisted with the sanctimonious and intolerant part, the angry, Goody Two-Shoes Christianity that was always gleefully damning people to hell and turning its believers into hypocrites" (192).

However, my worries didn't last for long. As the book continues, the author does show both Ruth and Tim as fully developed characters. They aren't cartoonish, which was what I was sort of expecting: Ruth, the angry liberal! Tim, the self-righteous BAC! In fact, many times Tim is more likeable and even-keeled. For example, Tim is able to look at the post-game prayer and realize he was wrong. He thinks, "He wasn't sorry about saying the prayer, and he certainly wasn't sorry about offending someone like Ruth Ramsey, but he was deeply sorry about putting Maggie [Ruth's daughter] in that awful position, embarrassing her in front of her teammates, taking what should have been a nice moment for all of them and turning it into something ugly and confusing" (136). On the other hand, Ruth sees it as an example of her getting pushed around one more time, and makes it all about her. She's unable to see how her own daughter feels. At other times, Tim seems like a jerk, while Ruth is more calm and adult-like. In other words: it's a lot like life.

One of the things that seemed weird about this book at first, but I grew to like it, was the lack of REALLY BIG, DRAMATIC events. If anything, the events in this book are so mundane and ordinary. On the book jacket, it breatlessly gushes that "a controversy on the soccer field pushes the two of them to actually talk." Trust me, it's a lot more low key then that in the book, as are the repercussions. Ruth and Tim just live their lives: raising their kids, going to work, gossiping with coworkers, worring about bills, surfing the net, making dinner, and going to bed. In other words: it's a lot like life.

In the end, I found the very ordinariness of their lives to be charming, and I raced through to the end. Nothing really gets solved, and the confusing and ambivalent problems get untangled...but only a little. I'd recommend it.


PS There was only little quirk in the author's writing style I found a little weird. He would build up to a scene, for example Tim is going to come over to meet Ruth for the first time in person and talk about the post-game prayer. There's be a little break in the page, and you'd then expect the scene to start. Instead, the next line is, "All in all, Ruth thought as she slipped her nightgown over her head, the meeting had gone surprisingly well" (192). A few sentences later Ruth thinks back to the meeting, and it gets replayed then. It was sort of weird. There were all these "time jumps", and at first I thought they were some sort of device used by the author to convey...something...but it just started to feel more like a quirk of the author. There's a lot of memory and reminiscing in this book, so much so that I felt like it was often "showing not telling." I can't decide if that was purposeful or not. What is it that people tell themselves about who they are and how they came to be that way? It was not bad or good, but noticeable.


  1. Ugh. I am jealous of your first book. I am slogging through JS&MN. I'm almost a quarter done and... not much has happened. But not in a pleasant way -- in a "Is something going to happen? In this book about *magic?!*" way.

    And yet... I still struggle to stop reading a book when I am not enjoying it. Why *is* that? I guess I am partially giving it the benefit of the doubt because I have been sick and that's not the book's fault. Also, because a LOT of people really like it. Also, it's long, so maybe it's just taking awhile to get going? I don't know. But it's wearing on me. We have *just* met Jonathan Strange, so perhaps things will pick up now (Mr. Norrell is kind of a dud).

    Re: Your book, I thought the observation that the addiction to Jesus might be replacing the drug addiction is interesting because I do, in fact, know a BAC for whom this is true (at least, it's a personal theory of mine).

    Overall, sounds like a good read -- I like a good book about good characters.

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  3. I liked it! I'm sorry you're struggling with Strange & Norrell.

    I forgot to mention the other SUPER creepy thing: this book *totally* predicts the housing market crash. Tim works as a mortgage officer, and there's a long description of how all of his clients at first were just doing refinances, but now all those clients are done. So they're desperately looking for clients that only qualify for crappy ARMs. I looked at the publication date and it was 2007!

    I just kept wondering how if this author figured it, presciently describing the entire situation, but all these economists didn't know. Sheesh.