In Brooklyn, in the Age of Disco, Valentine Kessler -- a sweet Jewish girl who bears a remarkable resemblance to the Virgin Mary of Lourdes -- has an unerring gift for shattering the dreams and hopes of those who love her. Miriam, her long-suffering mother, betrayed and anguished by the husband she adores, seeks solace in daily games of mah-jongg with The Girls, a cross between a Greek Chorus and Brooklyn's rendition of the Three Wise Men, who dispense advice, predictions, and care in the form of poppy-seed cake and apple strudels. When her greatest fear for Valentine is realized, Miriam takes comfort in the thought that it couldn't get any worse. And then it does.
Sagacious, sorrowful, and hilarious, An Almost Perfect Moment is a novel about mothers and daughters, star-crossed lovers, doctrines of the divine, and a colorful Jewish community that once defined Brooklyn.
This P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more.
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About 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.
Read an Excerpt
Almost Perfect Moment, An
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.
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.
- What role does mah-jongg -- a game of chance and luck -- have in the novel?
- 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?
- "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?
- What do you think the attraction between Valentine and John Wosileski isbased upon?
- Discuss the symbolism of birds that appears throughout this novel.
- 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?
- 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?
- Consider the defining physical characteristics of Valentine, John, Miriam, Joanne, Beth, and The Girls. How do these features reflect their personalities and attitudes?
- 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?
- 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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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,