three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
11-July-Aug-2004
user_rating: 
0

A Novel

A-AlmostPerfectMomentSet in 1970s Brooklyn, Kirshenbaum’s fifth novel unfolds as a series of vignettes about an insular Jewish community. It centers on Valentine Kessler, a ditsy 15-year-old who becomes obsessed with Catholicism when she discovers her uncanny resemblance to the Virgin Mary. Unbeknownst to her long-suffering Jewish mother, Valentine experiments with the religion, secretly reading The Lives of the Saints and listening to the "Ave Maria." A brief sexual encounter with her sad, awkward geometry teacher results in pregnancy. But, to everyone’s surprise, Valentine remains a virgin, mother to an immaculate conception.
Ecco. 336 pages. $23.95.

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"[What] makes the novel fun is Kirshenbaum’s breezy writing style and her shrewd observations about human nature. … But the novel’s greatest strength is the knowing, affectionate look back that Kirshenbaum casts at Jewish life in the Brooklyn of the 1970s." Thrity Umrigar

Boston Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"Kirshenbaum lays bare this collection of Brooklyn souls in the detached, supremely observational style of short story masters Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie." J.L. Johnson

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"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.’" Frances Taliaferro

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The ending of An Almost Perfect Moment is freighted with allegory and is a bit too abrupt. … Having given a realistic story an extra, religious dimension, she may have found herself unable to wind it up without leaving the earthy, plausible 70s world that her detailing and her love already have made divine enough." Michael Harris

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The real miracle here is that Kirshenbaum … manages to bring these disparate threads together in a believable way." Patricia T. O’Conner

San Francisco Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"Neither the prose—nor the sex—is a fresh, vivid or intellectually engaging as in Kirshenbaum’s earlier novels. ... Nevertheless, there is humor a-plenty here." Heller McAlpin

Critical Summary

Reviewers agree that the strength of An Almost Perfect Moment lies in Kirshenbaum’s incisive, witty (if sometimes cliched) prose and apt rendering of 1970s Brooklyn. Although the author paints vivid characters, Miriam Kessler—Valentine’s not-so-stereotypical Jewish mother—is the most clever tragicomic creation, and her klatch of mah jong buddies provides the novel’s richest humor and insight. The plot is a bit difficult to pin down, in part because Kirshenbaum paints snapshots rather than full-blown scenes. The consensus? The novel is an entertaining, thoughtful read, if not as masterful as some of Kirshenbaum’s previous novels.

Also by the Author

A-HesterAmongRuins.epsHester Among the Ruins | Binnie Kirshenbaum (2002): New Yorker Hester Rosenfeld moves to Munich to write the biography of her older, married German lover. While she revisits her own Jewishness, long diminished by her parents immigrant experience, she seeks out Nazi connections to her lover’s family. "…a sly and very black comedy." NY Times Book Review