Sex education, soccer and Christian fundamentalism make strange bedfellows in Perrotta’s shrewd yet compassionate fifth novel.
Neither as dark as Little Children (2004) nor as scathingly funny as Election (1998), 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 GI 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.