I purchased this old Penguin, along with several others, for just fifty cents at a local swap mart from a seller who expressed surprise that anyone would be interested in such old books, and who kindly returned the following week with even more old Penguins for me to choose from, priced no higher. And I was surprised that first morning as well, but in my case it was only about happening across a title I had never found before, so early on a Sunday and so close to home, after all the years of seeking them out.
I finished reading The Dud Avocado later the same day, as I found it an engaging and amusing novel which held my interest from the first page, even though the plot could be described as confused and confusing at times, and despite the behaviour of its temperamental and tantrum-prone heroine. Elaine Dundy had me captivated because she was able to convey through her prose a quality which I found beguiling; it was a reminder of just how exciting it was to be young, with nothing decided and everything still possible. At two pages in, I felt as though I hadn't read anything quite so enlivening in years.
The title refers to a suggestion by one of Sally Jay Gorce's friends that the typical '60s American girl (and it is girl, not woman) could be likened to an avocado:
Do you know that you can take the stones of these luscious fruits, put them in water - just plain water, mind you - anywhere, any place in the world, and in three months up comes a sturdy little plant full of green leaves? That is their sturdy little souls bursting into bloom.But, it seems, not in the case of Sally Jay - she adds the qualifier, implying that in her case this putative germination has miscarried. Such a self-assessment is perfectly in keeping with the self-critical tone she adopts throughout the novel, however, for she is ever-ready to provide her readers with an account of her many failings - from her inability to ever match her attire to the needs of the moment, to her propensity to lose every possession within weeks of its acquisition. But I am not convinced that she is right - she may not blossom while living overseas in quite the way she might have hoped, but she is certainly changed by the experience, and changed for the better.
Sally Jay is just twenty-two and living in Paris when we meet her. She spends her days wandering the streets of Paris with her hair dyed pink, and her evenings at the Ritz, waiting for a lover whom she must share with both a wife and a mistress. The arrangement had seemed so sophisticated in the beginning, but it soon palls, along with everything else which once seemed so enticing - such as staying awake all night, eating anything she wished, and knowing people other than those approved by her family.
In the paragraph quoted above, she describes the moment when she first realises that she is delighted to have met someone she knew back home in America, and it is a moment which could be considered an unfortunate first step on a journey which will lead her initially to temporary fame but then into serious difficulties, but which also provides an epiphany in a way. It is the moment when Sally Jay begins to realise that for years she has been searching for something which was always nothing more than an illusion.
And the reason seems to be that her conception of freedom was formulated at the age of thirteen, and never allowed to develop further. All throughout her childhood she had been tormented by the idea that life was something that was happening somewhere else, while she was stranded in St Louis, constrained by her family and its dull traditions, and prevented from taking part. After her fourth thwarted attempt at running away, her wealthy uncle had promised her freedom, and the opportunity to experience anything she wished, but only for two years, and only after she had taken her degree. It was a promise given when she was thirteen, and it was several years before she could take advantage of it.
But Sally Jay seems no more sensible at twenty-two than she was at thirteen - then she dreamed of becoming a bullfighter or a jazz musician; now she travels to Paris having researched nothing about it. Sally Jay must learn that reality doesn't correspond with her dreams the hard way, and so even though the accounts of the late nights, the frequent partying, and the poor decision-making can become tedious as the novel progresses, that such things do become tedious is the lesson Sally Jay must learn. I found The Dud Avocado a delightful and enjoyable book to read, despite its many flaws, because it captures a certain feeling so successfully, and that in itself seemed a remarkable achievement.
First published by Gollancz 1958. Published in Penguin Books 1960.
Thomas at My Porch