An Almost Perfect Moment
By Binnie Kirshenbaum
Ecco, 336 pp., $23.95
Binnie Kirshenbaum's "An Almost Perfect Moment" would have made an almost perfect beach novel. But don't wait until summer to read it -- this zany, irreverent, cheerful novel is exactly what we need to survive a changeable spring.
Set in 1970s Brooklyn, the novel tells the story of the beautiful airhead Valentine Kessler, a Jewish teenager who bears a startling resemblance to the Virgin Mary -- a resemblance that all the people in her life somehow fail to recognize. They also fail to see Valentine's strange attraction to an alien religion. Walking past a Catholic church, Valentine hears the choir singing "Ave Maria" and is bewitched by the sound; the sight of white Christmas lights makes her mute with longing.
Years before Bob Dylan underwent his famous conversion and entered his Jesus phase, here is 15-year-old Valentine furtively hiding "The Lives of the Saints" under her bed and going to the library to listen to recordings of "Ave Maria." But Valentine also goes where no nice Jewish girl (except the Biblical one) has gone before -- after an unsatisfactory sexual encounter with her sad-sack math teacher on her 16th birthday, she gets pregnant while still remaining a virgin. Try topping that, Bobby Zimmerman.
The math teacher, John Wosileski, has skin "the color of paste" and resembles a pig "except that he lacked a pig's expressiveness." Still, Valentine loves him and he her, though it does not occur to either one of them to mention that fact to the other.
Describing the plot of "An Almost Perfect Moment" is a little like trying to get a lemon seed out of a glass of water with your fingers -- it slips away from you. And really, the joy of this book is not really in its plot, which unfolds in a series of vignettes.
Rather, what makes the novel fun is Kirshenbaum's breezy writing style and her shrewd observations about human nature. She can sting you with a line that captures completely John's plodding sense of failure. And she can leave you chuckling at her descriptions of the daily games of mah-jongg that Valentine's mother, the 273-pound Miriam Kessler, plays with her three Jewish girlfriends.
But the novel's greatest strength is the knowing, affectionate look back that Kirshenbaum casts at Jewish life in the Brooklyn of the 1970s. The novel bristles with energy and sharpness, as Kirshenbaum captures the New York dialect, the Jewish humor, the "Who knew?"s, and, above all, the sense of community that holds this group of women together through the years.
It is a small, insular world. Kirshenbaum tells us: "For them, each and every person, place, or thing was Jewish or not Jewish. Like this: Doctors were Jewish, politicians were not. New England was for the goyim, New York for the Jews. Books were Jewish, guns were worse than trayf. And not just the nouns, but verbs too, as in walking was Jewish, but skydiving was not on your life."
Miriam is a clever creation -- instead of indulging in the stereotype of the overprotective Jewish mother, Kirshenbaum creates a Miriam who is blissfully ignorant of her daughter's mysterious inner life and is loath to pry too much. Yes, she does faint when she finds out about her daughter's pregnancy, but recovers to face the new reality with and aplomb.
The mah-jongg players, known collectively as "the Girls," are also a joy. Blissfully unaware of the feminist movement raging around them, they have an innate sense of sisterhood that is still strong enough to be biological. Despite the silliness of their plastic-covered sofas, the Girls show their worth in the days after Valentine gives birth, to a girl.
As events build upon each other like a deck of playing cards, the novel's improbable plot, its madcap humor, its sizzle and dazzle, its general desire to please, get the better of you. You find yourself giving in to its endless energy and good cheer and rooting for all of its characters.
Thrity Umrigar is the author of a novel, "Bombay Time," and a memoir, "First Darling of the Morning." She lives in Ohio.