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An Almost Perfect Moment

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Valentine Kessler, a Jewish teenager living in Brooklyn, is dead-ringer for the Virgin Mary as she appeared to Bernadette at Lourdes. An ordinary girl, bright enough and very pretty, Valentine seems to have a less-than-happy effect on those who both love and revile her. John Wosileski, a lonely math teacher, adores her from afar. Joanne Clarke, a biology teacher who wants more than anything to marry John, loathes the very sight of her, and Valentine’s best friend, a former figure-skating champion, is the one who will betray her. Valentine’s mother, the long-suffering Miriam, finds solace in a daily game of Mah Jongg with her three girlfriends who act as a cross between a Greek Chorus and a Brooklyn version of the Three Wise Men.

An Almost Perfect Moment is a dark and comic novel about mothers and daughters, mismatched lovers, and a colorful Jewish community that once defined Brooklyn. Wise and hilarious, it addresses questions of faith and the possibility of miracles with one eye on the caution: Be careful what you wish for.


Praise for An Almost Perfect Moment

“What a unique and wry and poignant and altogether lovely book! Binnie Kirshenbaum creates characters at whom you first laugh, but then end up adoring. This is a story about the complicated nature of love, life, longing and loss by an extremely talented author who—make no mistake about it—does very difficult things and makes them look easy. In addition to being a great pleasure to read, it is a novel that will very likely make you think about your own life in unexpected ways.” — Elizabeth Berg, author of Open House and Say When

"Rapture, longing, troubled faith, cruelty, contradictions, regret, and kindness An Almost Perfect Moment captures the strange and strangely common secrets that hold families together. Binnie Kirshenbaum's terrific novel is seemingly effortless, big-hearted, crushingly insightful, and joyfully readable." —Ben Marcus, author of Notable American Women

"Kirshenbaum...has an original voice and, even better, an original sensibility....An Almost Perfect Moment recalls the black comedy of Jewish American Literature of the '50s and '60s; we saw the same coziness and corrosiveness in Bruce Jay Friedman...and in early works by Philip Roth." —Los Angles Times

"Engrossing....The cinematic, effortlessly beautiful descriptions will spark the reader's imagination, and the myriad plot twists and turns will keep you guessing." —Chicago Tribune

"(A) darkly comic novel." —The New York Times

"(Kirshenbaum's gift for neurotic comedy has deepened into a more humane generosity.... They're (Kirshenbaum's characters) deeply, even ludicrously flawed, but they're not figures of fun because they all carry the existential burden of loneliness....Funny and compassionate." —Washington Post

"A quicksilver fable that manages to be at once ironic and mystical, tender and edgy, loaded with schtick and downright subversive....Writing with diamond-like clarity, high imagination, mischievous wit, and a whole lot of chutzpuh, Kirshenbaum ingeniously and daringly inverts biblical tales and social mores to tell an exhilarating story of a living deity in an attempt to illustrate the obdurate mysteries of the human heart and the truly cosmic dimensions of love." —Booklist

"Bitter truths (are) rendered palatable by the delicious sauciness of Kirshenbaum's prose." —San Francisco Chronicle

"On the surface it's an unremarkable drama set in 1970s Brooklyn among housewives and schoolteachers, but An Almost Perfect Moment is irresistibly absorbing, filled with...pathos. Kirshenbaum's pitiable heroes pursue dignity and happiness by abusing those closest to them, and somehow emerge both noble and poetic in defeat." —Gotham

"One of Kirshenbaum's great gifts is her ability to portray isolation without pulling any punches....The characters are original and engaging....Kirshenbaum depicts lives of absence and longing, in which resolution rarely equals happiness. In the world she creates, the social constraints of the era and the neighborhood make it hard for anyone to break out of the mold." —Forward

"Kirshenbaum lays bare (a) collection of Brooklyn souls in the detached, supremely observational style of short story masters Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie....Filled with such almost perfect moments that define her characters' lives while echoing passages of our own." —Boston Herald

 

Chapter Excerpt for An Almost Perfect Moment

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.

The foregoing is excerpted from An Almost Perfect Moment, by Binnie Kirshenbaum. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022

 

Reading Group Guide for An Almost Perfect Moment

INTRODUCTION

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?
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?

2. "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?

3. What do you think the attraction between Valentine and John Wosileski is based upon?
Discuss the symbolism of birds that appears throughout this novel.

4. 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?

5. 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?

6. 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?

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

8. 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?

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


Author Note on An Almost Perfect Moment

How I came to write An Almost Perfect Moment by Binnie Kirshenbaum

As child, I was mesmerized by sounds that went clickity-click; sounds made by typewriter keys, high heels, and Mah-Jongg tiles. It were as if those sounds conveyed a message, something about my future, a clickity-click Morse code. My mother did not play Mah-Jongg and I got to hear the sounds of the game only during the summer, poolside at the resort hotel in the mountains where we spent two weeks in August. While the typewriter (eventually, and begrudgingly, a computer) became the significant part of my life (as did, although to a lesser extent, high heels) the sounds of the Mah-Jongg tiles faded away.

Writers are inveterate eavesdroppers. I was sitting in a restaurant when I overheard a woman say, "I ask you. Is that a face?" Her words and her inflection resulted in association of remembrance: The clickity-click of the Mah-Jongg tiles came rushing back to me. I went home and wrote down Is that a face? and Mah-Jongg.

The world that Miriam and Valentine Kessler inhabit does not have all that much in common with the world in which I grew up. But flashes of memory -- a girl I went to summer camp with who had a Dorothy Hamill haircut -- a story my mother told -- there she was in gold lamé baking her own Challah bread, and a place -- Canarsie, where I'd been only once before -- became as vivid to me as if I'd been looking at photographs of them. The characters sprang to life as if they'd been waiting for me for years.

Because I had been to Canarsie only the once (to visit the girl from summer camp), I wanted to be sure that the place was really at least something like I was remembering or imagining it, and so early on into writing the book, on a February afternoon I took the LL train to the end of the line. While walking along the residential blocks looking at the attached houses and the garden apartments, I heard squawking. There, on a telephone phone, was a parrot. A big green parrot. And then another, and another, and then I saw, built over a utility box, a huge nest where there were another seven or eight parrots. On a cold winter afternoon, I counted perhaps a dozen parrots, tropical birds, living over a utility box in Brooklyn. To me, this was so amazing as to be something of a miracle. When I asked some Canarsie locals how the parrots got there, I was given a variety of explanations, not all of which were logical.

For the purpose of my novel, I turned a dozen green parrots into a pair of peach colored canaries, but what I did not change was the idea that maybe things happen for which we can find no logical explanation. Or maybe we just need to believe in miracles.


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