Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy

This delightful confection about a young girl, Sally Jay Gorce, in Paris has the kind of timeless voice that one can imagine sounding piquant and fresh in just about any decade of the last century, right up until today. Sally Jay has a closetful of designer clothes that she bought on sale but always seems to find herself wearing the wrong thing…like a cocktail dress in the daytime or a rumpled, layered schoolgirl look while trying to intimidate a consular officer at the U.S. Embassy. I can sympathize. Wearing the right thing is a learned skill, but what I could tell her is that people always wearing the correct attire either never go anywhere or change their clothes a lot.

Sally Jay is on a learning tour of Europe but she doesn’t really like travel, which is why she’s settled in Paris. She didn’t like Paris, either, when she first got there, but after a few days was having a pretty good time, so she stayed. She met folks she knew from back home, one especially, a man who directed plays at the American Theatre in town. He was a bit of a mystery and hard-to-get because he always seemed to have a different girl in the wings. This was plenty enough for Sally Jay to pursue him--when she could find him.

What is so pleasing about this voice is its bare-faced honesty. Sally Jay has dreams of luxury but most of her plans turn out rather differently. What at first seems like a sophisticated local boyfriend turns out to be a rather officious and salacious old bore. Her trip to “the south of France” in May suffers several weeks of unending rain. Her hair, dyed blonde for more pop, turns greenish in the sun. Her “big break” in the movies does turn out to be so—but only for another of her party.

She has fun anyway, and so do we. Listening to her complain is much more fun than imagining she got all she wanted out of excursions. She has a heart, we know, because it is so tender. When the film director she’d met down south invites her to dine when she gets back to Paris, they talk about avocados: how the hard center seed can just be put in water and it sends out shoots and roots wherever it is. Sally Jay never had much success with avocados…her center perhaps was not hard enough.

This book is about 250 pages but it reads like a novel one-third its length. Sally Jay has so much momentum, it takes nothing to follow her tale with real curiosity. When will she learn an important lesson and how will she react? The story is fascinating because Dundy could have ended it much earlier than she does, but she keeps us on to give us significance and meaning and true joy and romance. At one point tears sprang from my eyes quite suddenly: she must have groomed us closer emotionally than I was aware. We buy into the myth of Sally Jay, and don’t want to see her fail. And the last two words of the book are as cryptic and inappropriate and school-girlish as Sally Jay herself.

Best of all, the New York Review Books (@nyrb) 2007 edition has an Afterword by Elaine Dundy all these years later which explains to some extent the origins of the character of Sally Jay Gorce and the public's reaction to her over the years. Originally published in 1958, it has gone through countless reprints and still sells successfully today. It is a pleasure to hear how natural it was for Dundy to create the character. It was not a tortured creation scene, and it is not a tortured read. Treat yourself.

I read this book along with the nyrb Classics Group, so click on the link if you want to follow the discussion. It’s a terrific summer read.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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