'The Abstinence Teacher'

BOOK REVIEW: Sex and religion clash in a proxy fight for all the conflict and contradiction of life in the modern American suburb.

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Eliza snickered. "You mean a God you don't believe in."

"That's right. I don't believe in Coach Tim's God, and I don't think your sister does, either." Ruth turned to Maggie, suddenly worried that Eliza knew something she didn't. "You don't, do you?"

"I dunno," said Maggie. "Nobody ever taught me about it."

"Well, I do," Eliza said. "I believe in Coach Tim's God."

"No, you don't," Ruth snapped.

"Do you think I'm an idiot?" Eliza shot back. There was a whitehead at the corner of her left nostril that Ruth had to restrain herself from popping.

"No," Ruth assured her. "And I don't think you're a born-again, fundamentalist, evangelical, nutjob Christian, either. Because that's what he is."

"I believe in God." Eliza spoke slowly and calmly, locking eyes with her mother. "And I believe that Jesus is His only son, and that He died on the cross for my sins."

Maggie was staring at her sister, clearly startled by this news. Ruth's immediate impulse was to try to convince herself that Eliza wasn't serious, that she was just crying out for attention, but it didn't work. There was something in her face and voice—the eerie serenity of the believer—that couldn't be denied.

Perrotta's personal sympathies clearly lie closer to Ruth than to Pastor Dennis. If there is a weakness in this novel, it is Perrotta's inability to capture the mesmerizing appeal of the modern, entrepreneurial megachurch for 21st century Americans contending with declining wages, dwindling oil supplies, global instability and the end of American hegemony. The rapid growth of these churches, part of our country's unique brand of first-world religiosity, is a phenomenon that one wishes Perrotta had examined with more of the non-judgmental generosity that characterizes his treatment of single parents, gays, soccer moms and other denizens of the world he creates.