There are books I plan to read, books that are recommended to me or that I catch a review of, like the five or six books currently on my “Want to Read” list on Facebook’s Visual Bookshelf. Then there are books that I’ve never heard of, that catch my eye entirely by accident, often as I walk into the library. Don’t judge a book by its cover? Don’t be so foolish. If the title and cover aren’t catchy, I might never pick up the book. And God bless the people who make up the displays at the front door of the library, because without them a lot of good books might never have fallen into my hands. Like this one.
The Abstinence Teacher is a story that brings the right/left religion and culture wars in contemporary America down to the personal level. Ruth is a middle-aged, divorced teacher whose approach to teaching sex ed to teenagers is liberal: she believes that pleasure is good, shame is bad, and knowledge is power. All that changes when her class becomes controversial and, under pressure from a group of conservative evangelicals, she is forced to teach an “abstinence only” curriculum that goes against everything she believes.
But it’s also the story of Tim, a member of that conservative evangelical church who truly and genuinely believes that Jesus saved him from a life that was going down the tubes fast. Tim and Ruth are thrown into conflict when he leads her daughter’s soccer team (he’s the coach) in a spontaneous prayer session, and an enraged Ruth hauls her daughter off the soccer field.
Ruth and Tim could easily be caricatures or stereotypes — the sexually laid-back liberal and the uptight conservative. Or, more likely, one character could be well and sympathetically drawn, while the other could be a caricature, reflecting the author’s biases. But in fact both characters — whose viewpoints alternate throughout the story — are real, vividly realized people. Tim’s struggles with his faith, and the evangelical world he lives in, come across just as believable as Ruth’s world and her struggles. It’s a masterful job of presenting two people on opposite sides of the culture wars and showing both as genuine human beings.
This is a smoothly written novel that I devoured in less than a day. It’s a compelling and enjoyable read, and the only point at which I felt let-down was at the end. While I’m all for endings that leave things open and don’t resolve everything neatly, this ending left almost everything hanging, and all the major plot threads unresolved. Maybe the ending was clear in the author’s mind and he just wanted to hint at it gently, but the impression I got was that he’d gotten his characters into situations he couldn’t figure out how to get them out of, and he left it up to the reader to fill in the blanks. Which, in this case, was a little more work than I as a reader wanted to do.
Despite my disappointment with the ending, this was a good book and one I’d recommend highly to anyone who enjoys good contemporary fiction, and who is interested in the places where religion and American culture interact and sometimes clash.