I used to own Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado in my twenties, but I don’t think I ever read it properly, and it disappeared from sight in a house move. Oh how foolish I was, because – now that I’ve paid it proper attention – this stunning classic is superbly written and fizzing with good-natured life. I re-bought it last week, started to read it one evening and barely got a decent night’s sleep (much like the heroine), because I was enraptured by the charm, the vim, the verve, the splendid chaotic mess of Sally Jay Gorce’s life as a very young thing in Paris in the 1950s, an American girl on a regular allowance and definitely fancy-free.
This young madam conducts her affairs in an alcoholic haze in bars and restaurants on the Left Bank among Americans and the French. She’s not exactly promiscuous, but has a rather startling way of using her freedom to sleep with whoever she wants that is, so not like the lifestyle of, say, a Barbara Pym character from the same period. She dyes her hair, loses her pearls, gets so behind with her laundry that she has to wear an evening dress during the day, waiting for daywear to return to her closet. She’s like Lorelei Lee of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: delicious, wide-eyed, naïve and an enchanting survivor. She’s like Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises, with an unequalled appetite for drink, joyous flirtation and dancing. Her year in Paris is packed with incident and exuberance, and my goodness, are we all the better for it.
This novel is so much more enjoyable to read than a Muriel Spark, or a Doris Lessing (my obstinate bêtes noires). It’s not remotely worthy, or learned, or drearily interior, or literarily written, and has no political credibility whatsoever. It’s sheer pleasure, a 1950s Paris fairytale. Naturally all this fun can’t last forever. There are dark elements around every corner, behind every insouciant invitation. The men simply can’t understand Sally Jay’s total refusal to get domestic. Her former lover lays plots to make her miserable. Her dear friend Larry tries to pimp her to a rich Canadian. She thinks she’s been hired as an actress, but is actually just an English coach for a teenage bull-fighter (yet more echoes of Lady Ashley and Hemingway). She loses her passport, which the American Embassy seems unaccountably angry about. At least her allowance from dear eccentric Uncle Roger keeps coming, because without that she’d starve and lose all her possessions.
Sally Jay’s total unconcern with cooking or cleaning is powerfully endearing. When she tries to tackle catering for the first time (‘Which one is the oven and how do you light it?’), because her poor artist lover looks so miserable at not being able to have friends round for dinner, they all have to help Sally Jay with the cooking, and even then the bread is forgotten in the shopping bag (I am sure that Katharine Whitehorn pinched this episode for her 1960s classic Cooking in a Bedsitter). I really liked this refusal to go domestic, because it feels completely revolutionary for a 1950s novel about a woman. But nothing good lasts forever. In the end, Sally Jay may have found the love of her life, because she actually entertains the idea of marriage. Cooking is not mentioned as part of this deal, of course. The unspoken drudgery of housekeeping never is at the pre-betrothal stage, but at least she’s had a brave shot at living without it, before having to grow up.
Note on the author: Elaine Dundy wrote this novel after marrying Kenneth Tynan, the famously sclerotic British theatre critic and opinionated knowitall. He’s name-checked in the novel, and I wonder how much else is borrowed from their life together?
I’ve reviewed their daughter Tracy’s memoir, Wear and Tear, as well.