The Abstinence Teacher A Novel

Tom Perrotta

St. Martin's Griffin



Trade Paperback

384 Pages


Request Desk Copy Request Exam Copy

A New York Times Notable Book of the Year

Stonewood Heights is the perfect place to raise kids. It's got the proverbial good schools, solid values and a healthy real estate market. It's the kind of place where parents are involved in their children's lives, where no opportunity for enrichment goes unexplored.

Ruth Ramsey is the human sexuality teacher at the local high school. She believes that "pleasure is good, shame is bad, and knowledge is power." Ruth's younger daughter's soccer coach is Tim Mason, a former stoner and rocker whose response to hitting rock bottom was to reach out and be saved. Tim belongs to The Tabernacle, an evangelical Christian church that doesn't approve of Ruth's style of teaching. And Ruth in turn doesn't applaud The Tabernacle's mission to take its message outside its doors. Adversaries in a small-town culture war, Ruth and Tim instinctively mistrust each other. But when a controversy on the soccer field pushes the two of them to actually talk to each other, they are forced to take each other at something other than face value.

The Abstinence Teacher exposes the powerful emotions that run beneath the surface of modern American family life and explores the complex spiritual and sexual lives of ordinary people. Elegantly written, it is characterized by the distinctive mix of satire and compassion that have animated Perrotta's previous novels.

The Abstinence Teacher is also available on CD as an unabridged audio book. Please email for more information.


Praise for The Abstinence Teacher

"As formulaic as this plot might sound, Mr. Perrotta uses it not to construct a conventional screwball romance but to create a sad-funny-touching story that looks at the frustrations and perils of life in suburbia through darkly tinted, not rose-colored glasses."—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"Tom Perrotta is a truth-telling, unshowy chronicler of modern-day America . . . Perrotta's unmassaged realism runs through all of his writing [and] he gives space and speeches to proselytizers and scoffers alike, letting readers form their own conclusions."—Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review

"With abstinence programs and disputes over what can be taught in schools regularly making the front page, The Abstinence Teacher hits on prominent social fault lines. This has become something of a hallmark for Mr. Perrotta, who has developed a knack for combining hot-button cultural themes with flawed and complicated characters . . . While his stories bear the sheen of satire, they are actually sharp though compassionate investigations of human relationships. They can also be very funny."—Motoka Rich, The New York Times

"Abstinence is really a gateway for Mr. Perrotta to tell a much bigger and more complex story about religious identity in America . . . [A] deeply moving story of a man and a woman who see each other on opposite sides of a religious divide."—The Wall Street Journal

"The Abstinence Teacher is certainly Perrotta's most sensitive novel . . . tender, witty, and wise."—The Washington Post Book World

"Perrotta's balance of humor and pathos has no equal; he's naughty and nice . . . he brings this world to life with a few strokes. He never condescends to modern suburbia—instead he mucks around its corners, opens closets, and reveals oddball secrets."—Los Angeles Times

"Eloquently written, Perrotta hits a chord by giving readers a riveting look at the angst and sexual tension that can polarize people as they struggle to weigh their personal wants with societal standards . . . Perrotta weaves a masterful satire that is sure to make readers stop and think."—Chicago Sun-Times

"Undeniable power . . . Perrotta—like satirists since ancient Rome—attacks excess, hypocrisy, and intolerance wherever he finds them . . . His two souls, lost in confusion, reach out in the darkness. What they find surprises them both."—The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

"Perrotta spins another perceptive take on modern life with this strong novel . . . Perrotta's observations are at all times unsparing."—Seattle Post-Intelligencer

"What keeps the book from getting too heavy-handed, besides the sharply written humor, is the fact that Perrotta makes his evangelical Christian protagonist less of a zealot than the atheist . . . his characters are older and have had the shine rubbed off them. As a result, they're ultimately more satisfying to be around."—The Christian Science Monitor

"Fifty years after John Cheever turned a comic eye toward New England's Wapshot Clan, Tom Perrotta reigns as a mischievous bard of the 'burbs for the twenty-first century . . . Perrotta is an acute observer of social mores among the affluent middle class."—USA Today

"In his timely suburban satire, Tom Perrotta implores: Let's talk about sex . . . education. He resists giving firm answers to the thorny moral questions lurking in his material."—Entertainment Weekly

"For Tom Perrotta, suburbia is a place in which the rift between red and blue states is enacted on a single verdant, erotically charged battlefield . . . Perrotta finds entertainingly scabrous material in this setup."—Vogue

"The comic tone is there in numerous laugh-out-loud moments, but Perrotta's writing displays wisdom, too . . . His books combine profound ideas and readability in a way not often seen."—The Vancouver Sun

"Over the course of five novels and a collection of short stories, Tom Perrotta has laid claim to the prime real estate of upwardly mobile suburbia, hilariously probing its leafy, soccer-obsessed, McMansion-lined streets . . . [G]enerous, amusing, shocking, thought provoking, and more than a little familiar."—The Miami Herald

"A startlingly relevant and stunningly perceptive examination of the evangelical takeover of American exurbia . . . a hilarious and tender story about faith, divorce, and parenthood that also manages to contain our panoramic drama in miniature."—Men's Vogue

"Perrotta, as always, is deft and sure with his satire . . . [he] still manages the incipient romance with charm and humor."—Daily News

"The novel is wicked and witty yet infused with compassion for the characters."—The Columbus Dispatch

"Perrotta, who proved himself adept at reconciling dichotomies in the smart novel Election and Little Children, its deeper, darker successor, gets this unlikely couple together with maximum intelligence, minimum melodrama, and a sharp, funny sense of irony . . . It's also very tartly written."—The Denver Post

"Perrotta is that rare combination: a satirist with heart."—The Seattle Times

"Nobody renders the world of soccer moms and sprinklers and SUVs like Perrotta. He's the Steinbeck of Suburbia."—Time

"Sex education, soccer and Christian fundamentalism make strange bedfellows in Perrotta's shrewd yet compassionate fifth novel. Neither as dark as Little Children nor as scathingly funny as Election, like them it displays the author's wide-ranging empathy. Readers will certainly sympathize with Ruth Ramsey, the high-school teacher whose unwary response to a provocative classroom question about oral sex leads to her being saddled with a not-so-covertly Christian sex-ed curriculum. But Perrotta encourages us to respect all his characters, including the ones who belong to the Tabernacle of the Gospel Truth, source of the threatened lawsuit that's forced Ruth to tout the joys of abstinence. Among the believers is Tim Mason, a former rock musician and substance abuser who cleaned up with the help of the Tabernacle's Pastor Dennis, both a warm, nurturing shepherd to his flock and an unforgiving purveyor of hard-line doctrine. Ruth's older daughter Maggie plays on the soccer team Tim coaches, and she's outraged when he spontaneously leads them in a prayer after a hard-fought victory. That's about all the plot there is, as Ruth attempts to recruit other parents for a letter of protest and discovers that even in the affluent Northeastern suburb of Stonewood Heights the Christian right is a force to be reckoned with. Tim is beginning to have his doubts about his faith and especially about his marriage to Carrie, a sweet, much-younger woman who can't eradicate either his lustful memories of his ex-wife or his burgeoning attraction to Ruth. Perrotta makes gentle fun of Carrie dutifully leafing through a copy of Hot Christian Sex: The Godly Way to Spice Up Your Marriage, but also of Ruth's gay pal Gregory making elaborate dioramas of Parisian cafes featuring French Resistance Fighter G.I. Joes clad in black turtlenecks and berets. Confusion and regret are as much the subjects here as religious controversy. Ruefully humorous and tenderly understanding of human folly: the most mature, accomplished work yet from this deservedly bestselling author."—Kirkus Reviews

"Evangelical Christians and proponents of sex education (other than abstinence) usually don't see eye to eye, which certainly holds true in this novel . . . Ruth Ramsey is a tenured teacher who happily and quite successfully teaches sex ed to students at the Stonewood Heights high school. She firmly believes in providing kids with frank yet solid information so that they can make good choices. Ruth is also the divorced parent of two daughters, one a talented and avid soccer player. It is at a Saturday game that Ruth meets Tim Mason, a member of the Tabernacle, a local evangelical Christian church. This particular congregation has already had some run-ins with Ruth over her teaching methods, and Ruth is concerned when she discovers Tim leading the girls in prayer after a particularly exhilarating game. Perrotta deals with these timely issues by having characters from the different camps forced to confront one another. What results from these civilized exchanges, which feel so human in their complexity and confusion, is a more personal, inside view of how such tensions play out. Recommended for most collections and especially for Perrotta fans."—Robin Nesbitt, Library Journal

"Tom Perrotta knows his suburbia, and in The Abstinence Teacher he carves out an even larger chunk of his distinct terrain. Set in the northeastern suburb of Stonewood Heights, Perrotta's sixth book takes on the war between the liberals and the evangelists. When single mother Ruth Ramsay, the sex ed teacher at the local high school, tells her class that oral sex can be enjoyable, the Tabernacle of the Gospel Truth church begins its crusade. Believable or not, the school agrees to an abstinence curriculum and in marches JoAnn Marlowe with her blonde hair and pumps to instill in Ruth the tenets of the new program. Gone are the days of rolling a condom over a cucumber; now Ruth is required to promote restraint, which she does wearily and halfheartedly. These are heady days, when students rat out their teachers and the local soccer coach—Ruth's daughter is on his team—is a divorced ex-druggie and active Tabernacle member. When Tim leads the team in prayer, Ruth wrenches her daughter from the circle and the hostility between the opposing camps grows. Who is bad and who is good? Ruth's youthful promiscuity rises slowly to the surface, while Tim's struggle to stay sober makes him constantly confront his past. He's lost his wife and daughter—also on the soccer team—to his addictions, but now he's clean and married to a Tabernacle girl. His Jesus-loving ways, however, are in direct conflict with his desires, rendering him the most complex and likable character. When he loses his own battle with abstinence at a poker party, the finest scene in the novel culminates with his keying Jesus across the hood of an SUV parked in the drive . . . The book is rife with Perrotta's subtle and satiric humor . . . Issues of sex and religion that have shaken the town become, in the end, the story of what Ruth and Tim's newly forged relationship will soon become."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

The Abstinence Teacher

Some People Enjoy It
Miss Morality
ON THE FIRST DAY OF HUMAN SEXUALITY, RUTH RAMSEY WORE A short lime green skirt, a clingy black top, and strappy high-heeled...

Read the full excerpt



  • The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta--Audiobook Excerpt

    Listen to this audiobook excerpt from Tom Perrotta's novel The Abstinence Teacher. Stonewood Heights is the perfect place to raise children, but amid its good schools and healthy real estate market, a small-town culture war is brewing. The Abstinence Teacher focuses on two divorced parents who become adversaries in the mess: Ruth Ramsey is the human sexuality teacher at the local high school who believes that "pleasure is good, shame is bad, and knowledge is power." Her younger daughter's soccer coach is Ti



  • Tom Perrotta

  • Tom Perrotta is the author of five previous works of fiction: Bad Haircut, The Wishbones, Election, and the New York Times bestsellers Joe College and Little Children. He lives outside of Boston, Massachusetts.

  • Tom Perrotta
    Tom Perrotta


    Tom Perrotta

    Macmillan Speakers Bureau

    represents thought-provoking authors and experts. We can find a speaker uniquely positioned for your audience and budget.

    More info




Download PDF



Go to website


Sign Up