If the mother of Jesus was Jewish, then why can’t Valentine Kessler be a Madonna?
Like Pete Hamill’s Snow in August, Kirshenbaum’s fifth novel (following Hester Among the Ruins, 2002) explores a point of cultural collision between Catholics and Jews in a long-ago, more innocent Brooklyn, only this time it’s the 1970s and the neighborhood is Canarsie. Miriam Kessler still longs for the no-good husband who left her when Valentine, her only daughter, was just a baby, but she takes comfort in overeating and endless games of mahjong with The Girls, lifelong friends whose dialogue is classic yenta call-and-response. “ ‘Could she be a decorator or what?’ ‘She’s right, Miriam. You could be a decorator. It’s a showplace here.’ ” Miriam is mystified by Valentine’s sudden emotional withdrawal, but she’s patient, not knowing that her teenaged daughter has begun to imagine herself as the Virgin Mary. Requesting a white shawl (for below) and a blue one (for the head), Valentine is a plaster statue (sans plastic flowers) come to life, and she proves irresistibly attractive to Polish-American John Wileski, her math teacher. John, a lonely schlub and mama’s boy, is pursued in turn by Joanne Clarke, a homely biology teacher desperately seeking a husband. Valentine retains her hymen during a fumbling sexual interlude with John, but she does get pregnant—and all hell breaks loose. Nine months later, still in the grip of her idée fixe, Valentine gives birth to . . . a daughter? Not what she had in mind. But Miriam copes, as intertwined theologies drive the subplot. Christian compassion and the intercession of saints, personified here by the Kesslers’ neighbor, tenderhearted Mrs. Sabatini, are tied to a fundamental tenet of Judaism offered by The Girls: choose not the law but life.
Funny and a little grotesque—but pure New York.