While the plot - middle-aged New York woman looks for love-- may lean toward women’s fiction or chick-lit, Don't Make a Scene by Valerie Block deserves far more praise than your run-of-the-mill romantic story.
The novel opens as Diane Kurasik approaches her fortieth birthday. Her family, friends and acquaintances are hitting all their milestones of life, while Diane is still single, dating a long line of losers with parenthetical personality quirks (e.g., specialty: Peanuts memorabilia). She escapes the insanity by hanging out in movie theatres, including the Bedford Street Cinema in Greenwich Village, where she works as the director, planning its schedule by weekly themes, such as “Cynics, Shysters, and Con Men.”
Block frequently intertwines Diane’s life themes with the those of films, complete with parenthetical director and year identifiers (e.g., Mike Nichols, 1971, when the movie title Carnal Knowledge occurs). This trivial information, while educational, may be more irritating than entertaining by some readers. What feels more engaging and natural to the story is when more descriptive film or celebrity trivia is compared or contrasted with Diane’s life, providing more details and emotion than mere name and year dropping. It then becomes not only entertaining and informative, but poignant as well. Clearly, many Hollywood biographies were consulted in the development of this novel.
Block provides a significant amount of information about Cuba. Diane’s initial and unlikely Cuban ex-pat love interest, Vladimir Hurtado Padron, enters her life as a contractor who has been hired to redesign the space next door to the Bedford Street Cinema, adding a second screen for the theatre. While they dabble in a romantic interlude, it becomes apparent that what Diane needs is a man who shares her interest in movies and not some hot-headed, death-to-Castro married man who falls asleep during Rear Window, even if he is drop-dead gorgeous.
Diane’s life is kept on edge, and therefore moves the story along, by a constant search for a place to live. She’s evicted from her apartment, and we are taken into her family’s and friend’s homes, evoking scenes of judgment, pity, irritation and inconvenience. While Diane seems to be relatively happy, her friends and family insist that she’s not and must find a man and get married already.
Block’s characters are well-developed regardless of how much time we spend with them. One character, Daniel Dubrovnik, a seemingly bitter C-list Hollywood type, hates just about everyone, referring to one particular nemesis of his as “that cretinous mound of bad taste.” That line alone gives us all we need to know about Mr. Dubrovnik.
Block’s brilliance especially shines in the agonizing but humorous scenes of chaos. She puts the “fun” back into dysfunction. Is it dark humor, parody, or commentary on New York Society when the reader comes across a beautifully visceral passage of a scene in an apartment for sale by the owner where a fight breaks out between an evil real estate broker and the owner? Diane gets caught up in the crossfire. Broken glass and dishes fall to the floor while people lunge and scream. The police are summoned. Victims pull pottery shards out of themselves. All the while, prospective buyers wandering through the apartment calmly make inquires about the place such as “When did you buy the dishwasher?”
Initially Vladimir Padron is somewhat unlikable, although he gradually earns some sympathy after his son arrives from Cuba and he is forced to become more of a father. And Diane’s love life demonstrates that one can find the right person in the most unlikely of places.