An Almost Perfect Moment

An Almost Perfect Moment

4.0 2
by Binnie Kirshenbaum

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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

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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 and a 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 possibly get any worse. But then something even stranger happens, and Valentine's mysterious presence becomes an even more mysterious absence.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
The real miracle here is that Kirshenbaum, the author of two story collections and the much-admired novel ''Hester Among the Ruins,'' manages to bring these disparate threads together in a believable way … If there's a message to An Almost Perfect Moment, it probably has something to do with faith and love and the inadvisability of putting all your eggs in one basket. But it's also about what people see, and why. In the author's words: ''You either see or you don't, but even the most cynical can understand how the desire to see, the need to see, can produce the vision.'' — Patricia T. O'Conner
The Washington Post
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." — Frances Taliaferro
Publishers Weekly
Columbia University fiction professor Kirshenbaum (Hester Among the Ruins) mixes biblical lore with Brooklyn culture in her latest novel, a tragicomic tale of mah-jongg, thwarted love and the mysteries of faith in 1970s Carnarsie. Valentine Kessler, a lovely, slightly spacey Jewish teenager who's "the spitting image of the Blessed Virgin Mary as she appeared to Bernadette at Lourdes," is the book's enigmatic center. Around her swirl the shifting allegiances of high school friendships, the neighbors ("The Girls") with whom her mother trades gossip and mah-jongg tiles, and the increasingly desperate lives of two of her high school teachers, John Wosileski and Joanne Clarke. While cold, disappointed Joanne, who's got her eye on John, sabotages her chances at love, John, who privately aches for Valentine, succumbs to inertia, exhausted by the "thought of rallying" against life's challenges. Kirshenbaum's rendering of these two allows for painfully funny insights, but tenderhearted readers may wish their lives were a little less miserable. Much more fun are "The Girls," four middle-aged housewives. From Judy Weinstein, the queen of gold lam , to Valentine's obese mother, Miriam, who substitutes food for passion, they are vibrant and warm ("Girls. Girls. Are we gabbing or are we playing?"). Kirshenbaum's narrative style is a little restless, relying more on clever snapshots than fleshed out scenes, as she jumps from one character's perspective to the next. But she gracefully mixes comic takes on familiar domestic scenes with the poignant story of Valentine, who wants to be the Blessed Virgin but also to experience sexual pleasure. Complications and heartache abound, but they're mitigated by Kirshenbaum's humane humor and sly wit. Agent, Jennifer Lyons. (Feb. 10) Forecast: Kirshenbaum's novel follows on the heels of several other miracle tales (most notably David Guterson's Our Lady of the Forest). Some readers may suffer from apparition fatigue, but New Yorkers in particular will appreciate Kirshenbaum's resolutely Brooklynesque brand of humor. Five-city author tour. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Kirshenbaum follows up Hester Among the Ruins, a meditation on the Holocaust, with this fable of Valentine Kessler (named so because she was born on Valentine's Day). A nice Jewish girl growing up in late-1970s Brooklyn, she becomes infatuated with her Polish American math teacher and with the Virgin Mary, for she mysteriously resembles the vision of Mary seen by Bernadette of Lourdes. Valentine's father left when she was a baby, and ever since her mother, Miriam, indulges her beautiful, newly withdrawn daughter while eating herself into obesity and playing mah-jongg every afternoon with her buddies. The so-called Girls are like a Greek chorus, commenting on life around them and wondering at Valentine's inspired silence. As the story unfolds, it becomes a Jewish tale wrapped in Catholic mystery-ultimately, readers are not privy to the rationale behind Valentine's inexplicable behavior as student, daughter, lover, or repentant. Kirshenbaum finely draws many lonely and long-suffering characters, e.g., John Wosileski, the math teacher, and Joanne Clark, the biology teacher out to woo him. Bursting with hyperbole, this is a hilarious and uncanny snapshot of a bygone era. Highly recommended for all libraries.-Molly Abramowitz, Silver Spring, MD Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
If the mother of Jesus was Jewish, then why can't Valentine Kessler be a Madonna? Like Pete Hamill's Snow in August, Kirshenbaum's fifth novel (following Hester Among the Ruins, 2002) explores a point of cultural collision between Catholics and Jews in a long-ago, more innocent Brooklyn, only this time it's the 1970s and the neighborhood is Canarsie. Miriam Kessler still longs for the no-good husband who left her when Valentine, her only daughter, was just a baby, but she takes comfort in overeating and endless games of mahjong with The Girls, lifelong friends whose dialogue is classic yenta call-and-response. " ‘Could she be a decorator or what?' ‘She's right, Miriam. You could be a decorator. It's a showplace here.' " Miriam is mystified by Valentine's sudden emotional withdrawal, but she's patient, not knowing that her teenaged daughter has begun to imagine herself as the Virgin Mary. Requesting a white shawl (for below) and a blue one (for the head), Valentine is a plaster statue (sans plastic flowers) come to life, and she proves irresistibly attractive to Polish-American John Wileski, her math teacher. John, a lonely schlub and mama's boy, is pursued in turn by Joanne Clarke, a homely biology teacher desperately seeking a husband. Valentine retains her hymen during a fumbling sexual interlude with John, but she does get pregnant-and all hell breaks loose. Nine months later, still in the grip of her idee fixe, Valentine gives birth to . . . a daughter? Not what she had in mind. But Miriam copes, as intertwined theologies drive the subplot. Christian compassion and the intercession of saints, personified here by the Kesslers' neighbor, tenderhearted Mrs. Sabatini, are tied to afundamental tenet of Judaism offered by The Girls: choose not the law but life. Funny and a little grotesque-but pure New York. Agent: Jennifer Lyons/Writers House
Boston Herald
“Lays bare [a] collection of Brooklyn souls in the... style of short story masters Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie.”
Los Angeles Times
“Kirshenbaum...has an original voice and, even better, an original sensibility.”
Boston Globe
“[A] zany, irreverent, cheerful novel…. Bristles with energy and sharpness.”
Chicago Tribune
“Engrossing…. Cinematic, effortlessly beautiful descriptions will spark the reader’s imagination, and myriad plot twists and turns will keep you guessing.”
Booklist (Starred review)
“A quicksilver fable... at once ironic and mystical, tender and edgy, loaded with shtick and downright subversive.”
(Starred review) - Booklist
"A quicksilver fable... at once ironic and mystical, tender and edgy, loaded with shtick and downright subversive."

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.62(w) x 8.25(h) x 1.17(d)

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Almost Perfect Moment 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed reading this book very much. I found the characters touching and realistic. The setting of the book is Brooklyn in the 1970s. It took me back to when I was in high school in Brooklyn,