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A cautious novel about taking risks in life

The Abstinence Teacher
By Tom Perrotta
St. Martin's, 358 pp., $24.95

As with previous books such as "Election" (1998) and " Little Children" (2004), Tom Perrotta returns to the familiar terrain of the suburbs for his new novel, "The Abstinence Teacher," a serviceably told but tonally indolent story of sex vs. religion among upper-middle-class Northeasterners.

Ruth Ramsey is a sex-education teacher who incurs the wrath of the community when she mentions to a high school class that humans have been known, at times, to enjoy oral sex. The result of this statement is a witch hunt of sorts, not only by angry parents and school board officials, but also by a new conservative Christian group in town called The Tabernacle of the Gospel of Truth. Ruth is chastised and humiliated and forced to abandon her normal approach to teaching sexual health - condoms, awareness, responsibility - in favor of the newly sanctioned sex-education curriculum, which promotes strict abstinence and is spearheaded by JoAnn Marlow, an imperious hot blonde in a fitted skirt.

Hoping to put the mess behind her, Ruth lethargically teaches the new class, all the while struggling to mother her two young daughters and cope with the lonely state in which her divorce has left her. Toeing the line, however, does not come easily to her, because when Tim Mason, the coach of her daughter's soccer team - and member of the Tabernacle - leads the team in a group prayer after a win, Ruth flies off the handle, newly maligning herself among parents and reviving the mortification of her children. Starting trouble isn't great for her reputation, but her reaction catches Tim's eye.

Not that Tim needs any temptation. He has joined the Tabernacle to find refuge from his early life of sin: - rock music, alcohol, drugs, and lust, all of which ruined his marriage and sent his sexy wife into the arms of a rich lawyer. Pastor Dennis, the head of the Tabernacle, happily retrieves Tim from his wayward past, serves as watchdog for any potential transgressions, and even introduces him to a suitable wife, the nubile and naive Carrie, a fellow Tabernacle member who wants "nothing except to make [Tim] happy."

The slim story unfolds as Ruth tries to deal with her daughters (the older of whom suddenly announces that she loves Jesus) while her job grows more restricted and her curiosity about Tim blooms. Tim, for his part, struggles with his dedication to Christ and the Tabernacle, questions his commitment to his marriage and his ability to stay on the straight and narrow, and broods over Ruth. His only pleasure comes from coaching, where he leads the girls - his daughter among them - to victories fueled by his special apple slices, which he sprinkles with lemon juice to prevent browning.

In "Little Children," the tension between two main characters, Sarah and Todd - unhappily married young people who begin an affair out of mutual disgust for their unfulfilling lives - is contrasted with the arrival in town of a convicted pedophile, released from jail and now living with his mother. Their miniature drama is played out against the dynamics of a very real threat, looming just houses away. But in "The Abstinence Teacher," there is no external force to make Ruth's and Tim's stories that interesting or compelling. The Tabernacle, for all its religious bluster and sanctimony, seems an obvious foil to the privileged lives of suburban liberals. As a result, there is no real sense of tension in the lives of these characters.

Perrotta could never be blamed for withholding information about his characters - he is extremely meticulous with each portrait, delving into their pasts with quickness and ease. But his form of narration, his voice, is so preoccupied with being thorough that he ends up abandoning attempts at subtly developing, through gesture or nuance, the characters' emotional lives. This approach, efficient in maintaining the plot's momentum - and eliminating any interpretive participation the reader might have - feels self-conscious and overexplanatory, and the prose suffers: Dialogue feels stilted, satire fails to crackle, descriptive language remains airless and overly familiar.

It's odd when a premise based on such dynamic ideas - the collision of disparate ideologies and personalities, the politics of sexual expression and human behavior - is explored through such cautious means. Unlike his characters, who come to understand that life, for all its complexities and disappointments, is about taking risks, Perrotta, while capably arranging the elements of their lives, seems unwilling to follow their lead.

Nathaniel Bellows is the author of the novel, "On This Day," and a collection of poems, "Why Speak?"

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