Suburban Paradise Lost

The Abstinence Teacher
Tom Perrotta
St. Martin’s Press, $24.95, 368 pp.

Tom Perrotta likes to write about trouble in paradise, the snake in the grass which will expel you from Eden if you let it. The paradise of his new novel, The Abstinence Teacher, like that of his last, Little Children, is American suburbia, geographically placeless but instantly recognizable and lovingly characterized. Those who live there are wealthy, tolerant of others sufficiently like themselves to make tolerance easy, and bonded by shared anxieties about status, money, body fat, sex, love, interior decorating, and their children’s education. Trouble comes into a paradise like this when an alien presence enters, a presence with unassimilable interests and purposes, or one whose very existence is perceived by the locals as a threat to theirs. In Little Children that alien presence was a pedophile; in The Abstinence Teacher is the Tabernacle, a nondenominational Evangelical Christian church whose members seem bent on making paradise’s children into Jesus-lovers and its schools into advocates of abstinence from pre- and extramarital sex. Can this alien presence, this bodysnatcher from the beyond, be assimilated? Or must it be expelled by force?

One protagonist is Ruth, a forty-something, divorced, unhappily single sex-ed teacher in the local high school. Another is Tim, also forty-something, divorced and unhappily remarried, once a drug-abusing guitarist, now a Christian mortgage broker and coach of a middle-...

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About the Author

Paul J. Griffiths holds the Warren Chair of Catholic Theology at Duke University.