Sunday, 22 June 2014

Penguin no. 1437: The Dud Avocado
by Elaine Dundy

Suddenly, without quite knowing why, I found I was very glad to have run into him. And this was odd, because two Americans re-encountering each other after a certain time in a foreign land are supposed to clamber up their nearest lamp-posts and wait tremblingly for it all to blow over. Especially me. I'd made a vow when I got here never to speak to anyone I'd ever known before. Yet here we were, two Americans who hadn't really seen each other for years; here was someone from 'home' who knew me when, if you like, and, instead of shambling back into the bushes like a startled rhino, I was absolutely thrilled at the whole idea.

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.

Reviewed elsewhere:
Thomas at My Porch


  1. This is one of those books I see every now and then at second-hand shops and for some reason never consider. So glad to read that you really enjoyed it, Karen! Next time I find a copy my wallet will come out.

  2. Every girl should read this book.

  3. This has been on my wishlist for ages as it seems to tick so many boxes - coming of age, Paris, female (sort of) emancipation, pink hair (I've always wanted pink hair but am too chicken). I really must get to it.

  4. | LOVE this book - I first read it an impressionable age, and since then have frequently re-read and frequently give it to friends, particularly young women. On my blog I described it as Catcher in the Rye for girls. The plot is almost irrelevant, I think I mostly just wanted the descriptions of her life in Paris (and possibly I actually wanted her life in Paris for myself...). And she's very good on clothes, so ideal for my blog. (Several entries.)

  5. Do need to keep an eye out for this book - first saw a brief review of it in a newspaper archive a few years ago, and your piece here has prompted me to renew my search. Does sound promising.

  6. ...And as luck would have it, found a copy a few days later at the invaluable Scrivenors Bookshop in Buxton, UK. Did enjoy the 'breaking the fourth wall' reference to Dundy's then husband, Kenneth Tynan.

  7. I looked forward to reading this, as well as her memoir (forget the title) but was disappointed. Random and disjointed events, described with little insight. In contrast her novel "The Old Man and Me," I cannot recommend too highly. A young American woman travels to London intent on getting the money she feels should have come to her, but ended up in the hands of an older man who had been married to a relative. Devastating book.



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