Monday, November 24, 2014

Review: The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy

Sally Jay Gorce, having just graduated college, is off on a Parisian adventure and her rich uncle is footing the bill.  When we first meet her, she is spending her time doing nothing in particular.  She stays out late with groups of American artists in French cafes some nights and others she spends in the arms of a married Italian man.  Then she meets an old friend Larry, falls in love with him over an afternoon glass of wine, and does everything to get him to notice her, including audition for his play, in which she successfully performs.  The book follows her around the artistic cafes and seedy gay night clubs of 1950s Paris and documents in Sally's own charming and hilarious words her trials and victories, her many lovers and various rivals.

Miss Gorce is a wonderful narrator because she is flawed and completely honest about it.  She says,  "I always expect people to behave much better than I do.  When they actually behave worse, I am frankly incredulous."  She has no delusions about herself and doesn't take herself (or anything) too seriously.  She's not usually harsh with herself; she has brief pride when she accidentally does something well or kind and she fully admits mistakes and errors in judgement when she accidentally fails.  She never gives herself too much credit, and she doesn't beat herself up about anything either.  Sally Jay knows exactly who she is and what she's like, although she pretends not to.  For a twenty-two-year-old woman, she cares surprisingly little what others think of her.  She's in Paris to party.  Sally Jay does what she wants.

This spirited gal could win a lot of hearts, but I can see people of the theatre especially loving Sally Jay to death.  She is a new and talented actress after all, so I feel like she could be a theatre major's best friend.  She's dramatic yet along for the ride.

The Dud Avocado is considered a coming-of-age story and what better example of finding oneself than a student abroad.  But this novel is light-years more lighthearted than The Bell Jar or The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It is also very different from every other coming-of-age story I've read because the conclusion leaves you wondering if Sally Jay did actually come of age.  The unsatisfying and semi-blunt ending suggests that she did not really learn her lesson.  In fact the story ends with Sally Jay heading to Japan, possibly to relive her crazy traveler's adventures.  The last sentence is Sally's declaration "It's zymotic," of the Japan trip. "Zymotic" could have be 50s slang or just Sally Jay slang, but literally it is a 1800s adjective for a very infectious disease.  Elaine Dundy could be referring to the return of Sally Jay's fever for travel, but she also might mean that she has been infected with the same quick trustfulness that got her into trouble in France.

What probably got this carefree and unassuming literary work a reprinting after half a century is its honest voice and Dalmatian spots of wisdom.  For example, this line in particular pops into my head at almost every social event I've been to since reading this book: "I mean, the question actors most often get asked is how they can bear saying the same things over and over again night after night, but God knows the answer to that is, don't we all anyway; might as well get paid for it."

(Hooray for marking The Dud Avocado off my list!  What's next? Frankenstein and A Beautiful Mess book club November selection, Lena Dunham's new essays.)