An Almost Perfect Moment

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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 ...

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An Almost Perfect Moment

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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

  • ISBN-13: 9780060520861
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 2/3/2004
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 5.62 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 1.17 (d)

Meet the Author

Binnie Kirshenbaum is the author of An Almost Perfect Moment, On Mermaid Avenue, A Disturbance in One Place, Pure Poetry, Hester Among the Ruins, and History on a Personal Note. She is a professor at Columbia University's School of the Arts, where she is chair of the Graduate Writing Program.

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First Chapter

Almost Perfect Moment, An
A Novel

Chapter One

In Brooklyn, in a part of Brooklyn that was the last stop on the LL train and a million miles away from Manhattan, a part of Brooklyn -- an enclave, almost -- composed of modest homes and two-family houses set on lawns the size of postage stamps, out front the occasional plaster-of-paris saint or a birdbath, a short bus ride away from the new paradise known as the Kings County Mall, a part of Brooklyn where the turbulent sixties never quite touched down, but at this point in time, on the cusp of the great age of disco, when this part of Brooklyn would come into its own, as if during the years before it had been aestivating like a mud fish, lying in wait for the blast, for the glitter, the platform shoes, Gloria Gaynor, for doing the hustle, for its day in the sun, this part of Brooklyn was home to Miriam Kessler and her daughter Valentine, who was fifteen and three-quarter years old, which is to be neither here nor yet there as far as life is concerned.

Therefore, on this Tuesday afternoon, mid-November, it was in a way both figurative and literal that Valentine stood at the threshold between the foyer and the living room, observing Miriam and her three girlfriends -- she, Miriam, called them that, despite their middling years, my girlfriends, or simply, The Girls -- who were seated around the card table, attending closely to their game.

Four Bam against Six Crack, the mah-jongg tiles clacking into one another sounded like typewriter keys or fingernails tapping on a tabletop, something like anticipation, as if like Morse code, a message would be revealed, the inside track to the next step on the ladder to womanhood, such as the achievement of the big O or the use of feminine hygiene products, things Valentine had heard tell of but had yet to experience, things for later, when you're older.

For Miriam and The Girls, mah-jongg was not recreation, but passion. Nonetheless, and in their Brooklyn parlance, a nasal artic- ulation, they were able to play while carrying on a conversation, which was not so much like juggling two oranges, because, for them, talking was as natural as breathing.

"Am I telling the truth?" Judy Weinstein said. "I'm telling the truth. Could she be a decorator or what?"

"She's right, Miriam. You could be a decorator. Two Dragon. It's a showplace here."

"When I'm right, I'm right. She could be a decorator."

Even if her taste wasn't to your liking, there was no doubt Miriam had an eye for placement and color. The living room, recently redecorated, was stunning, in an Oriental motif. Red plush carpeting picked up the red of the wallpaper that was flocked with velveteen flowers. A pair of cloisonné lamps capped with silk bell-shaped shades sat on black enamel end tables flanking the gold brocade couch. A series of three Chinese watercolors -- lily pads and orange carp -- framed in ersatz bamboo hung on the far wall. A bonsai tree, the cutest little thing that grew itty-bitty oranges which were supposedly edible, was the coffee-table centerpiece.

"This room takes my breath away. I ask you, does she have the eye for decorating or what?"

"They make good money, those interior decorators."

Waving off foolish talk, Miriam asked, "Are we playing or are we gabbing?" To fix up her own home was one thing. To go out in the world as a professional, who needs the headache?

Miriam took one tile -- Seven Dot -- which was of no help at all, from Sunny Shapiro, while Sunny Shapiro with a face that, in Miriam's words, could stop a clock, applied, on a mouth that was starting to wizen like a raisin, a fresh coat of coral-colored lipstick, the exact shade of coral as the beaded sweater she wore.

Studying her tiles, a losing hand if ever there was one, Miriam Kessler fed a slice of Entenmann's walnut ring into her mouth. Like she was performing a magic trick, Miriam could make a slice of cake, indeed an entire cake, vanish before your very eyes. Miriam swallowed the cake, her pleasure, and then there was no pleasure left until the next piece of cake.

Her grief cloaked in layers of fat, Miriam Kessler was pushing 239 pounds when she last stepped on the bathroom scale back in September or maybe it was August. Mostly she wore dresses of the muumuu variety, but nonetheless, Miriam Kessler was beautifully groomed. Every Thursday, she was at the beauty parlor for her wash and set, forty-five minutes under the dryer, hair teased and sprayed into the bouffant of her youth;the same hairdo she'd had since she was seventeen, only the color had changed from a God-given warm brown to a Lady Clairol deep auburn.

Despite that Miriam never skimped on the heat, rather she kept the thermostat at a steady seventy-two degrees, Edith Zuckerman snuggled with her white mink stole, and so what if it was as old as Methuselah, and from a generation ago, hardly with-it. The white mink stole was the first truly beautiful thing Edith had ever owned and she wore it as if the beauty of it were a talisman. As if nothing bad could ever happen to a woman wearing a white mink stole, never mind that she had the one son with the learning problems and her husband's business having had its share of ups and downs.

Oh-such-glamorous dames, adorned in style which peaked and froze at their high-school proms, The Girls were as dolled up as if on their way to romance or to the last nights of the Copacabana nightclub, as if they refused to let go of the splendor.

Almost Perfect Moment, An
A Novel
. Copyright © by Binnie Kirshenbaum. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Reading Group Guide


In a part of Brooklyn that is a million miles away from Manhattan, on the cusp of the great age of disco, lives Valentine Kessler, a Jewish teenager who is pretty, sweet, blissfully aloof, and deeply loved by her mother Miriam. Valentine, bearing an uncanny resemblance to a particular rendition of the Virgin Mary, seems to have a strangely devastating impact on every life she touches.

John Wosileski, Valentine's lonely math teacher, adores her from afar, refusing against all common sense to consider ramifications of his obsession. Joanne Clark, a sad, bitter biology teacher who schemes to be John's wife, reviles Valentine to eventual self-destruction. Beth, Valentine's best friend who is fixated on Valentine's strange magnetism, chooses to abandon rather than understand her. But something, an event no one could have foreseen or imagined -- a miracle, a mistake, or maybe a strange conspiracy of fate -- is about to change all their lives forever.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What role does mah-jongg -- a game of chance and luck -- have in the novel?

  2. The author keeps the reader at arm's length from Valentine so she remains as mysterious to us as to the characters whose lives intersect with hers. What purpose, in your opinion, does this technique serve?

  3. "Dreams Miriam once had had for herself were now pinned on Valentine, passed on to her daughter, as if hope were a baton or a pearl necklace" (page 22). Do you think that Miriam living through her daughter is an act of selfishness or selflessness?

  4. What do you think the attraction between Valentine and John Wosileski isbased upon?

  5. Discuss the symbolism of birds that appears throughout this novel.

  6. Why does Valentine become curious about Catholic imagery? Is there a hole in her life that her newly found faith fills? Does Judaism play a part in her life, either as a religious or cultural heritage?

  7. How does Miriam fit into the stereotype of the Jewish mother in American culture and literature? Compare Valentine's relationship with Miriam to John's relationship with his mother. What impact did their lives, heritage, and worldview have on their children? What does this novel say about the difference between miracles and happiness? Of all characters, who do you feel is most open to the possibility of miracles? Are these characters always sympathetic?

  8. Consider the defining physical characteristics of Valentine, John, Miriam, Joanne, Beth, and The Girls. How do these features reflect their personalities and attitudes?

  9. Why does Joanne keep and wear the ring that John gave her? Why do you think she rejected John when he came back to her? Why do you feel he would want to be with Joanne considering how he truly felt about her?

  10. What does the title, An Almost Perfect Moment, mean? What was an almost perfect moment for Valentine, Miriam, Joanne, and John?

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.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 3 of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 25, 2010

    Almost perfect story

    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,

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 17, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 14, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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