Almost Perfect Moment, An: A Novel

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9780060520861: Almost Perfect Moment, An: A Novel

On the cusp of the great age of disco, and in a part of Brooklyn a million miles away from Manhattan, livesfifteen-year-old Valentine Kessler and her long-suffering mother, Miriam.

Valentine -- Jewish, pretty, and a touch flaky -- is an unremarkable teenager except for two things: she is a dead ringer for the Virgin Mary as she appeared to Bernadette at Lourdes, and her very being, through some inexplicable conspiracy of fate, seems to shatter the dreams and hopes of people around her.

John Wosileski, Valentine's lonely math teacher who adores her from afar, embraces the martyrdom wrought by his unconditional and unrequited love. Joanne Clarke, the bitter and sad biology teacher who schemes to be John's wife, reviles Valentine to eventual self-destruction. Valentine's best friend, a former figure-skating champion, humiliates her for the crime of being "different."

But Miriam Kessler -- betrayed and anguished by the husband she once worshipped -- —loves Valentine only the way a mother could -- deeply, yet without knowing. Transposing one sensual appetite for another, Miriam eats and eats and seeks solace in a daily game of mah-jongg with her three girlfriends. The Girls, a cross between a Greek Chorus anda Brooklyn rendition of the Three Wise Men, dispense advice, predictions, and care in the form of extravagant gifts and homemade strudels. When Miriam's greatest fear for Valentine is realized, she takes comfort in the thought that it couldn't get any worse. But then something even stranger happens, and Valentine's mysterious presence becomes an even more mysterious absence.

Written in a naturalistic voice that echoes that of the characters, An Almost Perfect Moment is a dark and sharply comic novel about star-crossed lovers, mothers and daughters, doctrines of the divine, and a colorful Jewish community that once defined Brooklyn. Sagacious, sorrowful, and hilarious, it raises questions of faith and plays with the possibility of miracles with one eye on the caution: Be careful what you wish for.

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About the Author:

Binnie Kirshenbaum is the author of two short story collections and four novels, most recently the critically acclaimed Hester Among the Ruins. She is a professor of fiction writing at Columbia University and lives with her husband in New York City.

From The Washington Post:

Binnie Kirshenbaum -- she of the unforgettable name -- turns out to be a terrific writer. In the course of two short story collections and four novels, her gift for neurotic comedy has deepened into a more humane generosity; she hasn't become just another fast, funny urban smartmouth. Her excellent last novel, Hester Among the Ruins, was the richly layered exploration of a love affair in Munich, complicated by the dark discoveries to be found in both love and history.

In An Almost Perfect Moment, Kirshenbaum turns to Canarsie, Brooklyn, in the early 1970s, "on the cusp of the great age of disco." Forget Vietnam, forget national sturm and international drang -- there's so much going on here in this Brooklyn of idyll or fable, "in the day and age when your parents were your parents and not your friends, a day and age when families didn't share or open up and there were no television commercials dictating talk to your children." It's a time when domestic verities are firmly fixed, if not eternal, for stay-at-home moms, husbands who still come home for a hot lunch, and teenage girls to whom a bunny jacket is the fur equivalent of a training bra.

We meet two powerful social groups, middle-aged and young. The adults are Miriam Kessler and her mah-jongg friends. Years ago, Miriam's husband ran out on her and their little daughter, Valentine, but Miriam's three girlfriends remained true: After all, "no person was an island." Then there are the teenagers. Canarsie High School, a place of brutal Social Darwinism, is "no place to go it alone": You have to have allies and you can't risk being thought queer. Not "queer" in its sexual-orientation sense; this is the queerdom of nerds, geeks and dorks whose attention can contaminate you, of borderline cases now expelled from the peer group because one day they wore the wrong socks to school.

And there are the loners who refute the romantic notion that teenage nerds will metamorphose into attractive adults. Joanne Clarke, a biology teacher at Canarsie High, has a beautiful body, but acne has disfigured her heart as well as her face: She's mean to her senile father. John Wosileski, who teaches math, looks like a pancake but has a sensitive soul. By all the laws of novelistic compensation, these two ought to find each other -- but John worships his student Valentine Kessler from afar.

And Valentine? She's 15 years old and turning a little "queer," even though she's the prettiest girl in the school. She listens patiently when her friend Beth says, "I definitely want to do it with Joey, but I'm going to wait until Hanukkah." But Valentine has no interest in the usual teenage sexual politics. A nice Jewish girl, Valentine can't get the song "Ave Maria" out of her head. She's been reading The Lives of the Saints (which a librarian gave her under the mistaken impression that she'd be looking for the "hot" parts). And Valentine bears a striking resemblance to those pastel cards and garden sculptures that depict the Blessed Virgin Mary. If you hear that Valentine, still a virgin, unaccountably becomes pregnant and gives birth to a wondrous child, you'll think Binnie Kirshenbaum has bitten off more than she can chew as a novelist.

But she's entirely equal to the challenge, with no resort to cheesiness, hardness of heart or self-congratulatory irony. A decent reviewer should not tell the ending of the novel -- it's appropriate and touching -- but it's probably all right to reveal that, along the way, Enzio's Pizzeria is transformed into a shrine to the Holy Mother because Valentine stopped there for two slices plain and a Diet Pepsi. As the perky local-TV reporter says, quoting Einstein, "There are only two ways to look at life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as if everything is."

The real wonder of An Almost Perfect Moment is that, halfway into it, you've begun to care about Kirshenbaum's characters. They're deeply, even ludicrously flawed, but they're not figures of fun because they all carry the existential burden of loneliness and the fear that "in time it would mutate into something worse than loneliness: the surrender to it." A few novels ago, Kirshenbaum may have exploited the possibility of mocking this condition, but in An Almost Perfect Moment she manages to be both funny and compassionate. She doesn't cite Philo of Alexandria, but she could have: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle."

Reviewed by Frances Taliaferro


Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.

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