The Abstinence Teacher,Tom Perrotta

I admit that I don’t read much literary fiction. I find myself drawn more to genre fiction or memoirs, but occasionally when I’m browsing a bookstore, I see something like The Abstinence Teacher – on sale and with a strong first few pages – and I give it a try (or at least I swear to myself that I will…eventually). Of course, this poor book has now been languishing on the shelves for a few months; fortunately for it, in the midst of my November writing fervor, I found myself looking for something to read that had nothing to do with my work.

My own novel, which I will hesitantly call “finished” after this month’s efforts (by which I mean, I have a first draft with enormous holes in what a generous reader could call plot, action, and sense…) is a relatively light-hearted romantic comedy set in a parallel universe. It surprised me with a few dark twists, but over all, it could be described as frothy. I didn’t want to risk stealing ideas from another similar author, so that meant steering clear of anything in the adventure/fantasy/YA/mystery/humor realm. On the other hand, the book I’m getting paid to finish (deadline extended! December 14! Yes!), a project that’s coming together surprisingly well, focuses on some seriously deep issues regarding faith and reflection. I found that I really needed a break from the emotional response I was having to some of the work that has been contributed by other writers; this meant heartfelt or inspiring literature and autobiographies were also out. Lastly, I was determined not to spend any more money on books this close to Christmas, so it had to be on my shelf already. When I weeded out everything from the above categories, I was left with Tom Perrotta’s fascinating novel about a woman struggling to teach a high school sex ed class in a community that was evolving into a strict, evangelically Christian-minded town.

Let me come back for a moment to the reason why I don’t read many books that fall into the wide-ranging genre known as fiction. It’s simple, really. They’re depressing. That’s it – I have no complicated literary criticisms to share on the subject. I just prefer to be entertained by my entertainment, and I don’t find much pleasure in the suffering of others. This is not to say that I don’t occasionally find it cathartic to read these books, and I’m not trying to pigeonhole all fiction. This is obviously a gross generalization on my part, but the fact of the matter is, I tend to avoid literary fiction because it’s difficult for me to escape the heaviness that inevitably accompanies even the best read.

The Abstinence Teacher sort of slipped under the radar for me. It was advertised as being “Highly entertaining…a very funny, very engaging novel,” and while I admit I found it interesting, as well as completely unpredictable (an almost unprecedented experience these days), funny was not a word a would have chosen to describe it further. Wry, maybe. Clever? Certainly. But funny? No. At least not for me. I actually spent most of the novel hoping that no one would kill themselves, not because any of the characters seemed unusually depressed, but because the situation and people were both familiar and “fine” in that way that made me eerily certain I was missing the warning signs.

It was an unsettling feeling. It was also a new experience, and one that made me realize what a masterful storyteller Perrotta was – subtle, patient, and damnably mysterious about how he planned to get around to making me binge eat pound cake while watching re-runs of The X-Files on late night television (except that I gave up sugar last month, so mostly I was just drinking gallons of herbal tea while pleading with Mulder to just kiss her already). I won’t tell you how Perrotta managed to undo me, because I have to believe some of you might enjoy the post-read lethargy that arrived shortly after I finished the book. I can tell you that in the aftermath though, you would have found me memorizing the cracks in the ceiling while contemplating the horror that is our public school system.

So yes, it was (as I might have predicted had I not been so busy) a bit of downer. I actually believe though that another reader might have found the ending hopeful, so I don’t want to completely mislead you. It’s simply my take on the events in the story that brought me down…well, that, and Perrotta’s devastatingly accurate one-two punch in my emotional gut. I’m just going to chalk it up to a win that I have three more weeks to cheer myself up before Christmas.

For more about Tom Perrotta, head over here. Seriously. Go. Misery is best enjoyed with (sympathetic, in-the-know) company.

2 thoughts on “The Abstinence Teacher,Tom Perrotta

  1. This sounds really interesting, and I’m a bit mad at myself for not buying it when I saw it on sale a few months ago! I really liked Perotta’s The Leftovers last year, and I have his book Little Children waiting on my shelf. I keep putting off reading it, afraid that it won’t be as good as The Leftovers, afraid for some inexplicable reason that I will be let down. Great review; it restores so much of my hope about his works!

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