I had lived my entire life thinking I was the only person whose thoughts and interior monologues were not directly parallel to what I said out loud. Despite the narcissism in this sentiment, it hit me as a torturous responsibility to feel completely isolated in having a multifaceted thought process. This rang true until the summer of 2018, when for the first time, I read Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado. While this book holds great personal value to me, I would conjecture that the book’s cunning and wisdom has resulted in the same impact on its international audience. It was the first piece of literature in which I found enlightenment and clarity through an ability to relate to the main character, a young and spritely woman. She embodies the skeleton of the trite archetype of an American, searching for self-discovery and spontaneity in the iconic bustling Parisian streets.
What distinguishes this book from the countless others of a similar premise is that the main character, Sally Jay Gorce, does not have the same doe-eyed naivety of her peers. She makes countless mistakes, and only occasionally admits to them, but she does not fabricate unrealistic and romanticized versions of her friends. She lives in the 1950s, and in many ways, Sally Jay is caught up in the fast life of this period and place- alcohol, cigarettes, and sex. She discusses these ideas with an open candidness, in a time where even recognition of this lifestyle was taboo. The book’s reception by American audiences proved the dichotomy between French and American attitudes towards life. Living other aspects of European typicality, she also has experiences of the slow, languid European summer, of sandy shores and liberation. The context of this situation is unique- Sally Jay has been near coerced to go to the French coast, and inhabit a seaside home with an offbeat group, in order to star in a film. The inclusion of this detail supports the notion of people’s self-obsession and yearning to be recognized or known, which feels especially relevant to Sally Jay’s life. Despite this, Sally Jay does not have the same interest as everyone else to be in the film, although she approaches it with more motivation than other extras, who leave set to drink midday and incessantly disrespect the directorial authority. At this point, the lines between alcohol consumption out of desire versus necessity become blurred. In a world in which people struggle to maintain sight of their morals, Sally Jay is true to her constant, but occasionally questionable, ethics.
This book is set apart by Elaine Dundy’s innate ability to take a glorified situation, and pin it down to earth with the realities of human experience, including the annoying, the heartbreaking, and the conflicting. The hedonistic characters within Dundy’s anecdotes are at times brutally honest, and at other times manipulative and deceptive. In this regard, there are parallels to Francoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse- themes of an idyllic beachside summer interacting with substances, pressure, and the bridge between youth and womanhood, including inevitable love interest.
On love- The Dud Avocado is unique in its ability to portray love and relationships in which people are occasionally used as objects. Lust exists for its own sake, rather than deeper underlying passion. In many instances, Sally Jay is confused by her host of suitors, and the reader can witness her conflicting emotions as she sorts her feelings for various men, acting as a femme fatale. Love is a central theme throughout this book, but it is not oriented around the development of one flawless, faithful relationship. This was scandalous in this book’s time of publication, 1958. One man in particular is committed to Sally Jay, yet she is bored, and focuses on her other pursuers. She does not make the logical, white picket fence decisions that many literary characters end up making. At one point, a confidant advises her, "That's what's making you unhappy. The puritanical commercial American success drive." Sally Jay becomes her own worst enemy, and inadvertent self-sabotage causes her to be in situations with men who are not well intending. However, all of these esoteric experiences are limited by the reality of the fact that Sally Jay is only in Paris for one year- a year of complete independence in which her guardian promises to never contact her, yet give her near limitless funds. This unrealistic premise allows Sally Jay to be around French socialites.
The book’s setting is quintessential Paris, through a wry American’s green-tinted glasses. I note green, rather than rose, because in some instances, she is overcome with envy, despite being a sympatheticcharacter.She does not glorify what is in front of her in the overdone style of media such as Midnight in Paris.No situation brilliantly proves this point better than the subplot of Sally Jay’s missing passport. Through mundane drama within the dull walls of the American embassy, to fervor in an accusational spree of passport-thief hunting, Sally Jay learns humility, with the help of her horde of followers. Ultimately, this saga instills in her a lack of trust, which is not the typical parable, nor is it expected. Her passport thief was the person with which she was smitten and chasing, all along. In this moment, we learn that the motivations of others are as complicated as her own.
The name The Dud Avocado is successfully reflective of the nature of the book. Just as Sally Jay is an unpredictable shock to the French, this name is a great enigma and surprise. One does not find out the meaning of this name until the end of the book, in which Sally Jay has an epiphanic and symbolic moment over a defective avocado. It is fitting that one of the few times Sally Jay finds meaning in life is as she views something completely ordinary, and ultimately that is the merit in this book. It is a passage through excitement and misery, and does justice to both.