Elaine Dundy •
New York Review of Books Classics • Available now
In and out of print over the past 50 years and recently optioned for film, Elaine Dundy’s irreverent comic novel, The Dud Avocado, is one of the funnier books ever to have explored the theme of the Innocents Abroad. Dundy, a New York City native who spent a year in Paris in the 1950s before marrying and eventually returning to the states, admits that the novel is largely based on her own misadventures in France. But, semi-autobiographical or not, it’s the voice of Dundy’s invented protagonist — Sally Jay Gorce — that elevates the book from a story of debauched antics to a narrative of intrigue and foreign beauty.
Sally Jay is a 21-year-old college dropout determined to live it up, even if it lands her in a Parisian prison (which, incidentally, it does, but only temporarily). Almost immediately upon her arrival, she finds a married man and gets the chore of losing her virginity out of the way. She also does what most of us have done/would do given the chance to see the Champs-Élysées on someone else’s dime: she drinks a lot of champagne; has a lot of sex; falls in and out of love; and takes up with a bunch of artsy types, “most of them so violently individualistic as to be practically interchangeable.”It’s sharp, hilarious phrases like that one, along with a cast of ominous characters ranging from an international pimp to a diminutive bullfighter, that make this novel not just about one woman’s year in Europe, but also about the universal human desire to make the most of our youth. In Sally Jay, Dundy has created a cynical, irreverent, yet buoyant observer who chronicles the gritty side of the American-in-France experience; you’ll find no lengthy descriptions of the Luxembourg Gardens here.
Nudge this book between A Moveable Feast and Gentleman Prefer Blondes on your “Books To Read Before Visiting France” list. That way, you, like Sally Jay, can maintain some semblance of self-awareness while still joining the ranks of those who’ve traveled before you.