I sat down and tried to read, but I couldn’t. After ten pages I was in a state of cold fury. Read! I didn’t want to read, it was just a substitute for living.
Funny words coming from an author (speaking through her semi-autobiographical protagonist) in the middle of her first novel, but Elaine Dundy wasn’t afraid to ruffle feathers or flout convention. Her debut (and by all accounts best) novel, The Dud Avocado, was a critical success and was popular in its day, but has fallen out of print at least once since its original publication and just returned to print in mid-2007, less than a year before Dundy died. The book earned her plaudits from Ernest Hemingway, Gore Vidal, and Groucho Marx, who wrote to Dundy:
I had to tell someone (and it might as well be you since you’re the author) how much I enjoyed The Dud Avocado. It made me laugh, scream and guffaw (which incidentally is a great name for a law firm). If this was actually your life, I don’t know how on earth you got through it.
The novel follows American ingénue Sally Jay Gorce as she tries to make her uncertain way among the Bohemian set in Paris in the 1950s, “tries” being the operative word, as Sally Jay is hapless in just about every matter that matters, foremost among them love. She enters a tepid affair with a cartoonish and quite married Italian diplomat, falls in love with a smarmy American from her hometown, and goes on a mistake-prone jaunt with a man she’s never met but who has developed a crush on her after seeing her on stage. She has a tremendous knack for wearing the wrong thing, and is developing a habit of saying the wrong thing. Oh, and she loses her passport during a night on the town.
Dundy said in later letters and in the afterword to this most recent edition of the book that all of Sally Jay’s bad decisions mirror her own from her time in Paris, which I would imagine was a lot less funny to live through than it is to read about. The intimate connection with her scattered protagonist clearly helped Dundy infuse the character with the spirit for which she and the book are praised, but also a self-awareness that Dundy probably didn’t have as she lived through these misadventures:
Was I beginning to have standards and principles and, oh dear, scruples? What were they, and what would I do with them, and how much were they going to get in the way?
There is an interesting plot beyond Sally Jay’s bad-luck-in-love escapades, and aside from the coincidence that drives the book’s final chapter or two (perhaps a comment on the inescapability of one’s destiny) the story is very tight. But it’s the humor that carries it into a class with Scoop, Lucky Jim, and your better Wodehouse novels.