Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta

I read this book on a four hour plane ride, sitting next to an overly perfumed elderly woman who was reading what appeared to be an 800 page tome titled something like Exploring the Gospel of John. Not the most comfortable circumstances, to say the least. She kept giving my book dirty looks, as if she knew it was making fun of her book. And by the time I finished The Abstinence Teacher, I'm not sure I blamed her.

I had extremely high expectations for this novel. So you know where I'm coming from, let me say right away that I'm not a religious person. However, many of the people I love and care about are. Half of my family are serious Christians - not Left Behind Christians, but they love Jesus and aren't shy about saying so. Because of the various discussions and arguments we've had over the years, I like to think I have a bit of insight into how serious Christians think, and I do my best to treat their beliefs with compassion and respect. I was expecting similar even handedness from The Abstinence Teacher, (especially after reading the NYTBR review where the reviewer claims that Perrotta "gives space and speeches to proselytizers and scoffers alike, letting readers form their own conclusions"), but in this I was disappointed. Perrotta seemed to me to be preaching to the choir, as I imagine most of his readers identify with the non-religious protagonist, Ruth, and I completed the novel with no more insight into fundamentalist Christian sects than when I started.

Don't get me wrong - as someone who's not a fan of organized religion, it was satisfying to read a book where the secular humanist side wins out over the "Jesus freaks." But to be fair, the Jesus contingency weren't putting up much of a fight.

Here's the story: Forty-one year old Ruth Ramsey is a divorced Sex-Ed high school teacher who recently got into trouble for saying that "some people enjoy it" ("it" being oral sex). One of her students, who belongs to the Tabernacle, a new fundamentalist Christian organization that condemns drinking, dancing, premarital sex, homosexuality, and everything else you'd expect, misquotes Ruth as advocating oral sex in the classroom. The Christian community threatens suit, and to appease them, the school adopts a new program of Abstinence (called Wise Choices) that Ruth must teach. Ruth of course, objects to the program, calling it unrealistic and uninformed (one of their stats puts the failure rates of condoms as high as 36%).

In the meantime, Ruth's 10-year-old daughter Maggie is one of the top players on her soccer team. When Ruth attends a game and Maggie's coach, Tim Mason (also a member of the Tabernacle), leads the team in prayer after a victory, Ruth yanks Maggie out of the prayer circle and threatens to take her off the team.

Thus begins the dialog and strange attraction between Ruth and Tim. Their arguments about theology were some of the most anticipated scenes in the novel for me. Here's an exchange that had me particularly interested:

Ruth: "I'm being silly? You're the one trying to sell me a theological system that puts Hitler and Gandhi on the same level."

Tim: "It does not."

Ruth: "According to what you told me, they're both burning in hell for not being Christians."

Tim: "I'm sure God's capable of making a distinction between Hitler and Gandhi."

Ruth: "I hope so. But somebody apparently forgot to mention that in the Bible."

...this continues on, but here's the clinching line...

Tim: "Look, Ruth. You can trap me in a hundred contradictions that smarter people would be able to explain away. But that's not what this is about for me."

This is typically where this type of arguments ends for me, too. What Tim says sums up my frustration with his character - why can't he be one of the "smarter people" that could explain away Ruth's contradictions? Now that's a discussion I'd like to be privy to.

Tim is a recent Christian convert who came to religion once he hit rock bottom. He was an alcoholic and drug addict whose vices cost him his house, wife, and daughter. He seems to have used Jesus as a crutch to begin rebuilding his life - when the story opens he is holding down a full time job, coaching his daughter's soccer team, and has been awarded custody of her once a week. The other Christian characters also seem to have accepted Jesus out of sheer desperation. Pastor Dennis had what could only be described as a psychotic break while working as a Best Buy employee: he went from a functioning member of society to a man who saw a Bible glowing on his desk and was consequently inspired to destroy thousands of dollars worth of electronic equipment while screaming things like "Whore!" and "Abomination!" Tim's young Christian wife reveals on her wedding night that not only is she not a virgin, but she once slept with a dozen men in the space of two weeks. The Christian student in Ruth's class is puritanically dour and scowling and bent on taking Ruth down. I eventually had to wonder why there weren't any Christian characters who were more, um, "Christian."

I'm not one to plug Christianity, but I know plenty of people who are mentally and emotionally stable, don't have a history of substance abuse or rampant promiscuity, and still convert to Christianity or are practicing Christians. I understand why Perrotta made the choices he did, because it creates for more contrast and drama, but I'd have been more interested to see a less hypocritical Christian butt up against Ruth.

This isn't to say that I didn't enjoy the novel - I did. I read it in a single sitting, and it kept me turning the pages. The characters are extremely well drawn, especially Ruth. Here's something she said that I particularly enjoyed:

"If there was one thing that rankled about being a woman, it was this conviction, drummed into your head before you had a chance to defend yourself, that it was your job - your obligation - to always look your best, even in situations when you had no logical reason to care."

There are some stylistically genius sections in the book, like when Perrotta alternates between Ruth being stuck in an Abstinence training program, with the assignment to write about "A Sexual Experience That I Regret," and her date with an old high school fling the night before. Ruth mischievously writes about what happened that night - how she turned down the opportunity for sex, and wishes she hadn't. Then there's the blond bombshell promotional speaker from Wise Choices, who speaks at Ruth's high school about her decision to remain a virgin until after marriage. Along with the expected cautionary tales of genital warts and herpes, gonorrhea and AIDS, she presents a slide show of her model boyfriend, both of them in swimwear on some Carri bean island, and says:

"As you might imagine, it's not easy saying no to a superhot guy like Ed. But when it gets hard, I just remind myself of my wedding night, and how amazing it's going to be when I give myself to my husband with a pure heart, a clean conscience, and a perfectly intact body. Because that's going to be my reward, and mark my words, people - it is going to be soooo good, oh my God, better than you can even imagine."

Those of you who have had sex with a male virgin can appreciate how thick the irony is here.

Obviously, the US is sharply divided on religious issues. In this area especially, people seem incapable or unwilling to see things from "the others'" perspective. That's why I think a novel like this has a bigger job to do than just entertain: specifically, it should help all the non-hardcore-Christians that comprise the majority of Perrotta's readership understand just where the rest of the country is coming from with their Chastity Balls, intelligent design, pro-life and pro-death-penalty sentiments, and the overall blurring of the line between Church and State. In this, Perrotta was unsuccessful.

I read The Abstinence Teacher for my book club, and I'm sure they'll have a lot to say about it once we meet. I hope you do too.

Friday, November 16, 2007

What The Dead Know by Laura Lippman

When I read mysteries for pleasure I'm extremely bad at guessing the ending / who done it. Even Jodi Picoult? She always surprises me. Gone Baby Gone the movie? I read the book years ago, and I still managed to forget the climatic twist. I remember reading Ruth Francisco's Good Morning, Darkness and being totally shocked by the ending, even though I should have seen it coming. I have a theory that I somehow, subconsciously or something, obfuscate the clues and conventions of the genre, or avoid thinking about them, so I can guard my moment of surprise. Or maybe, deep down, I just want to please. I want to be the perfect reader - that reader who every writer hopes for - who stays in suspense until the writer hands her the story in a neat package. Or maybe I'm just, um, dense.

So when I figured out the mystery to What The Dead Know a whole ten pages (!!) before it's revealed to the reader, I was quite proud of myself. Am I getting better at this?, I wondered. And if so, it that really a reason to celebrate? I do like surprises, after all.

But enough.

In the opening of this book, a woman is in a car accident. When the police come, she refuses to show any identification, and claims to be one of the Bethany girls, who disappeared from the local mall nearly 30 years ago and were never found.

The facts were these: Easter weekend 1975 Sunny Bethany (15) and Heather Bethany (12) took the bus to the mall and never came home. The mystery woman claims to be the younger sister, Heather Bethany, but can offer no proof, only deliberately vague clues. Detective Infante investigates. There are flashbacks.

The novel is narrated from multiple view points, with the mystery woman (we'll call her Heather) being the main character. She's the most fascinating character by far. We know she's lying about some things, but telling the truth about others, but we don't know which is which. Neither do any of the other characters. Her skill as a liar is shown in this scene, where Heather and Kay are late to a meeting with Heather's lawyer, Gloria:

Heather: ""I'll call her on your cell, explain we're running behind." Without waiting for Kay's agreement, Heather grabbed the phone from the cup holder between the seats and used its received-calls log to find Gloria's number.... "Gloria? It's Heather. We're just getting on the road. Kay's ex-husband was late picking up the kids, and we couldn't very well leave them there, could we?" She didn't give Gloria time to reply. "See you in a few." What a brilliant excuse, Kay thought. She pinned it on someone that no one knows, that no one would think to question.

It took a split second, but the larger implications of this observation seemed to vibrate beneath her tires as she merged onto the long, sweeping exit to Security Boulevard."

I especially like this scene because of how it also connects with the title of the book. If you think about it, What the Dead Know is a resonant title for any mystery, but especially this one. Little by little it comes out that "Heather" has gone by many names. Her story is that she was kidnapped that Saturday afternoon at the mall by a former cop, who killed her older sister and kept her as some sort of sex slave. He completely breaks her; convinces her that her parents would never take her back, and eventually she no longer needs to be restrained. The cop finds an alternate identity for her - that of a child whose family all died in a fire - and enrolls her in a parochial school under the name Ruth Leibig. When Heather/Ruth leaves at the age of 18, the cop shows her how to research death records, take names and social security numbers of dead children, and make their identities her own. Heather/Ruth starts over. Many times.

What the Dead Know was chosen as one of Publishers Weekly's Best Books of the Year last week. Here's their preamble to the contest:

"Three thousand books are published daily in the U.S., and PW reviewed more than 6,000 of them in 2007, in print and online. From that astounding number, we've culled a best books list covering our favorites in fiction, poetry, nonfiction, comics, religion, lifestyle and children's—150 in all."

Laura Lippman's in great company, with National Book Award winner Dennis Johnson's Tree of Smoke, and Joe Hill's Heart-Shaped Box, which I haven't read but really want to (the book sounds great and he's Stephen King's son). I'm not sure why What the Dead Know was included in the general fiction category instead of the mystery category (mystery winners include Ruth Rendell and Thomas Cook), and I'm also not sure why it's referred to as a thriller in the logline:

"In this outstanding stand-alone thriller, a driver who flees a car accident breathes new life into a 30-year-old mystery—the disappearance of two young sisters at a shopping mall—when she tells the police she's one of the missing girls."

Not to get overly technical, but I always felt that thrillers need to feature an element of danger as a primary part of the plot. Someone needs to be threatened, or in trouble. People should be dying. There should be a ticking clock. Most of this story takes place in the past. There's no killer on the lose, or threat of a repeat crime. One by one, the villains are revealed to be dead or incapacitated. Personally, I don't think of this as a thriller, but whatever.

This book is definitely worth the read. Heather is a great character, and the mystery kept me wondering and turning the pages, though I bet many readers will guess at the ending rather early in the novel. Even so, the reveal is enormously satisfying, as you look back at everything that happened and think, "of course!" There is a sense of what I like to call inevitable surprise. My only complaint is a minor one - none of the other characters were as compelling as Heather. Her mother, father, and Sunny are extremely well drawn (I ached for Sunny), and Lippman does a great job of conveying the parents' grief, but during the sections that belonged to playboy Detective Infante or Kay the social worker, I found myself getting a bit restless. I wanted to spend all my time with the Bethany family. What the Dead Know is as much a close look at familial relationships and how people grieve as it is a "thriller."