Tuesday, March 31, 2009

An Almost Perfect Love

Binnie Kirshenbaum's novel An Almost Perfect Moment acts a little ADD as it careens from character to character -- four ladies in 1970s Brooklyn, New York playing Mahjong and gnoshing every week, two lonely schoolteachers who try but fail to make a connection, and especially 15-year-old Valentine Kessler, a beautiful Jewish girl who's fixated on the Virgin Mary.

Sometimes the narrator stays with a character for only a sentence or two before bouncing somewhere else. The happiest place is the Mahjong circle, which is centered on Valentine's lonely mother, Miriam. When crisis strikes, her friends rally impressively. We all should have such friends. Meanwhile the unrelieved loneliness of Joanne and John, the high school teachers, plays out almost sadistically. Their revulsion at their burdensome parents makes Miriam's friends' devotion to her, and hers to Valentine, seem especially precious.

At the beginning of the book, Kirshenbaum, perhaps mindful of Valentine's never-fully-explained progression into her Marian obsession, presents a quotation from the gnostic "Gospel of Philip": "Is it permitted to utter a mystery?" You can tell the narrator is keeping secrets about all these characters, but if one thing is perfectly clear, is that's the lesson of the story is that if we don't love our parents, children, and friends, no one will, and that such love can be practiced and mastered:
It occurred to Miriam how often she done this, watched Valentine sleep, how she did so without thinking, the way ritual evolves into a part of being....Miriam, as she always did whenever she looked at Valentine, filled with love and then more love came, a flood of love, and Miriam began to fear it, so overwhelming the love was.

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