Review – Tom Perotta – Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher, Part II

OK. I should have moved on. I have continued reading, but haven’t posted any reviews. However, this book really stuck with me, and I need to get this off my chest.

I have noted in my review of Little Children that Perotta paints sympathetic portraits of suburbanites. Sure, by merely describing how they act, Perotta hoists the lot of them on their own petards. Again, I need to stress that Perotta does not present a one-sided portrait of these harried fathers and mothers. This is important, as Ruth and Tim, the two protagonists, are on two opposite sides of the debate on sex education and how far private religion should extend into public schooling.

Of the two, Ruth comes across as insouciant and flip. It actually makes it hard to root for her, despite the fact that hers is probably the more realistic point of view: kids will have experiment and have sex. Why ignore this fact and tell them to repress their urges? Sex education becomes damage control, rather than a vaccination. Her nemesis is JoAnn, not surprisingly, an attractive, sexy, but virginal spokeswoman for a conservative Christian organization. Again, Perotta avoids the easy send-up; as portrayed, there are no dissatisfied boyfriends, grumbling fiance, or kinky neuroses (or any hint of “doesn’t-really-count-as-sex” sex). As a matter of fact, JoAnn comes across as rather dignified, given the contrast in Ruth’s divorced, lonely, and somewhat aimless life. However, there is no doubt that Perotta’s sympathy lies with Ruth; the arguments against knowledge of sex usually are spoofed with wild figures, false accounts of disease transmittance or injunctions from the Bible. Ruth at least gives voice to various numbers and facts about STDs and birth control.

Tim enters the story as Ruth’s daughter’s soccer coach. After a win, Tim gathers his players, who form a circle to give thanks to God. Ruth is mortified, and so the plot is set; Tim and Ruth fall into their roles as adversaries, although Tim is generally an unwilling participant. Tim comes off as a sincere man, who wandered in his youth and failed as a husband and father. Now divorced, he shares custody of his daughter and tries hard to make amends. He too is somewhat aimless; he desires the past that he has lost and has no idea how to let go or move on. He is prodded into a relationship, and then marriage, with Carrie, a fellow parishioner, by the pastor.

It would be easy to focus on the red state/blue state split, the evangelical authoritarians against the liberal sophisticates. There are no new arguments here. What I carried from this book was an admiration of how well Perotta portrays characters. Even the pastor, the obvious lightning rod for anti-evangelical sentiment, doesn’t fall into that role. Pastor Dennis is a dynamic young man who converted Tim. I think enthusiastic best describes Dennis. Dennis is naturally disgusted with Tim for being so weak now; of course Tim made mistakes with his first wife. But now Tim pursues Ruth, spurning Carrie, and it seems realistic to me that while Dennis may overlook past transgression, he abhors what Tim does.

I think the least sympathetic character in the whole book is Carrie, Tim’s wife. She is dutiful to a fault. When I write these reviews, I have no  idea what the author’s intentions are (unless I’ve read interviews). It seems to me that Perotta’s intention with Carrie is to use her to represent the worse of the Christian authoritarian movement. First, Tim does admit that Carrie is his better. But then Perotta twists the knife a little – against Carrie. Carrie realizes it. Her attempt to provide a stable home is her duty. Her settling down with Tim is her duty. When Carrie buys sexy lingerie to ignite passion in their lives, it’s her duty. Submerging her desires; it’s her duty. Her marriage to Tim is a duty.

Therein lies Perotta’s main point; why are evangelicals so gung-ho about submission? Worse, it isn’t even as if Carrie does her duty for god. It is unclear if her motivation is faith, fear of being alone, or a need to amend her past by starting a life as a chaste wife. It is unclear what emptiness she is trying to fill. I might have mis-read the book, but I thought that all the other characters seem sincere. They generally believed in what they are doing, even if how they go about it turns into a complete mess. We don’t read too much about JoAnn’s life, or Pastor Dennis’s wife. As I had mentioned, it seems that JoAnn has it together.

As for Pastor Dennis, there is an element of pride in his pushing Tim to do the right thing; Tim was an official convert. Again, that is a reasonable portrayal of a very human sin. Tim struggles; he has lusts, and he knows what comes of it. He lost his wife over it. But lust is on the same continuum as a capacity for passion; he lacks that with his current wife. One problem is the biblical injunction to have stability, to have a woman simply to temper the man’s wild urges. Ruth is no stranger to sex; she has even enjoyed some of it. But she has also felt pain at being used, and her adult life seems devoted to addressing the symptoms of promiscuity, the logistics of avoiding pregnancy and disease management, and not so much really helping kids – or herself – find happiness or joy on their own terms. Ruth understands enough that religion is not a salve, and neither is living for the moment. But she isn’t sure how to proceed with living in the moment, to be happy and not merely pleasure-seeking. Carrie, by contrast, seems bitter. She has grown to dislike her past (promiscuous) self, but she doesn’t like her present self either. However, she seized on the fact that being able to suppressing her desires places her on moral ground, and more importantly higher than her husband. Despite her meekness, that’s the game she decides to play, and she certainly knows the score. That makes her the ugliest character in the story.

The strength of this story lies in the complicated characters. Especially Ruth and Tim, who are both aimless but sense they are currently at the nadir of their lives. In the end, Tim of course puts his lot with Ruth; although it should be a big statement against the use of religion, sex, or marriage as a bandaid on dissatisfaction with life, it felt more like a realistic first step these two trying to decide what actually makes them happy. I think this is a sublime ending.

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