Faith and the formula for a hit

novel | The Abstinence Teacher, by Tom Perrotta, St. Martin's Press, $24.95, 368 pages

Tom Perrotta seems to have hit on a perfect recipe for mainstream literary success: Set your novel in a recognizable suburbia. Populate it with likable but unhappy characters, two of whom forge a connection despite themselves. Add a hot-button issue to the mix to give the plot a juicy, socially relevant twist. Sell the movie rights, and call it a day.

The Perrotta formula has served him well with past novels such as "Election" (which was adapted into a near-perfect film with Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon) and "Little Children" (adapted into a well-meaning but flawed film starring Kate Winslet).

His latest novel, "The Abstinence Teacher," takes as its hot-button issue the growing evangelical movement in the United States and uses it to chart the collision of two very different characters: Ruth Ramsey, the sex ed teacher at a suburban high school, and Tim Mason, her daughter's evangelical soccer coach.

Ruth is a divorcee who has recently seen her curriculum changed from a knowledge-is-power template to one preaching abstinence; Tim is a former rock musician who came to the church late in life, after drug addiction cost him his family. The two meet when, in an ill-conceived moment of religious inspiration, Tim urges his soccer team to kneel and pray after a particularly hard-fought victory. Ruth reacts with anger and condemns Tim.

So far, so good: Perrotta has set the stage for a spiky romantic comedy. As Ruth realizes midway through the novel, after everything has gone awry, even she had been hoping that her and Tim's story might turn into "one of those corny 'opposites attract' narratives" in which "a man and a woman who held wildly divergent views" exchanged charged banter until they realized all they wanted was "to hop into bed with one another." Perrotta resists that hackneyed device in "The Abstinence Teacher," instead bringing Ruth and Tim into an uneasy relationship that is constantly thrown askew by Tim's mistakes and Ruth's assumptions.

Not a great deal actually happens in "The Abstinence Teacher." Rather than a plot filled with hairpin turns, the novel features perhaps 20 long set pieces, each one given time to play out at leisure, filled with dialogue that, for the most part, sparkles. (A long and clumsy theological debate between Ruth and Tim toward the end of the novel, which reads like an e-mail exchange between enthusiastic undergraduates, is an unfortunate exception.) These set pieces -- an ecstatic service at Tim's church, a long and rainy soccer game that turns into a joyous mud bath, a counseling session for obstinate abstinence teachers, a Promise Keepers-style rally in a coliseum -- are engaging to read, but often seem like chances for Perrotta to show off the research he did into evangelical Christianity.

Indeed, for all the dignity with which Perrotta treats Tim's faith, and the decency he gives other Christian characters (like Tim's devout second wife, or the passionate pastor of his church) -- as serious a treatment of contemporary Christianity as you're likely to see in literary fiction these days -- it's clear that Perrotta views the world of evangelicals as a kind of exotic land he's exploring for the benefit of his readership, so filled are these scenes with anthropological detail.

Tim is hardly a textbook evangelical. His faith takes a beating over the course of the novel, he's plagued with doubts and he falls off the wagon. But Perrotta also gives Tim a long passage in which he explains that he doesn't really agree with his church's stance on homosexuality, which reads uncomfortably as though it was shoehorned in because Perrotta couldn't quite bring himself to be on Tim's side without it.

For all the novel's faults, though, as Tim falls apart and Ruth's wariness turns into concern, we are completely on their side; we're eager to find out how their uneasy friendship will resolve itself and how they will navigate the choppy waters of their futures. But conclusion of "The Abstinence Teacher" is something of a cop-out; the novel fades out at a moment of modest suspense, with Ruth and Tim having just made momentous, life-changing decisions. (In the movie-speak with which Perrotta is surely now well-acquainted, the book ends at the beginning of the third act.)

A better, gutsier novel would follow Ruth and Tim for another hundred pages or so, to see how their difficult choices change their lives. But Perrotta, for all his ability to create rich, complicated characters, seems a bit allergic to putting those characters through the consequences of their actions. This isn't the first time; "Little Children," too, ends just as things are really about to get hard for its two heroes. "The Abstinence Teacher" points out the problem that has made me uneasy about Perrotta's novels ever since "Election" made his name in the literary world.

Perrotta is a smart, snappy writer with a keen ability to mix domestic drama with social commentary. It is to his credit that he shows such affection for the damaged souls that populate his novels. But showing affection for your characters shouldn't be confused with going soft on them.

It's not a writer's job to look away when things get tough. It's a writer's job to make things as complicated as possible, then to see his characters through until the end. When Perrotta grits his teeth and finds the courage to be cruel, he might turn from clever novelist to a great one.