09 November 2010

Book Review: The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy

  
Day Four of NYRB Classics Reading Week

[The observant among you may have noticed that my scan of this book cover shows Lucy's first (and hopefully last) attempt to read  a book.]

There is something about living abroad in one's early 20s that really can't be replicated. No matter how many times I go back to Europe, nothing will ever compare to the six months I spent working in London when I was 21. This is an age when you are old enough to enjoy the experience but still stupid enough to live with a certain amount of abandon. Our heroine in The Dud Avocado, Sally Jay Gorce, seems to have a little more of the latter and not so much of the former.

Thanks to a generous uncle, Sally Jay is spending two years living in Paris. During that time she hooks up with all sorts of artistic (and not so artistic) characters while she somewhat half-heartedly pursues an acting career. Like many 20-somethings, her ambition and common sense ebbs and flows and seems to dissapate at the first sign romance. Although I did plenty of stupid things when I was abroad in my 20s, I never really lost control of my overall trajectory. Sally Jay on the other hand seems to go with the flow more than is good for her. Of course, to many this is the charm of The Dud Avocado. To someone like me, who likes order, predictability, and people who follow the rules and don't make waves, the book is somewhat less charming. But that doesn't mean it isn't worth reading. It just meant that I had to adjust my expectations. This is not your cosy, girl blossoms in foreign land kind of story.

For me, for the reasons noted above, this book was hard to warm up to. But just when I thought it was going to be a slog from beginning to end, it suddenly caught my interest in a meaningful way. Around page 140 I stopped trying to rewrite it in my head to make Sally Jay more responsible and found myself actually starting to care what happens next.

I realize this doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement for The Dud Avocado, but I will say that if I had expected something less picturesque and more madcap I would have enjoyed it much more than I did. But even that doesn't do it justice, there are some serious themes that make for compelling reading. Published in 1958, it also deals with female sexuality in a pretty frank way that must have been somewhat scandalous for the time. And I am sure there are many feminist and not so feminist themes that could be teased out. But I am too intellectually lazy at the moment to do so.
    

11 comments:

  1. this seems like an interesting book-is that thew author on the cover??

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  2. I read this in the Virago Modern Classic edition - i was attracted by the title! It took me a while to warm up too too, but now I am remembering that I want to read Dundy's other VMC, which I think is called My Old Man.

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  3. I've had this on my shelf for quite a while, and I'm glad for the warning that it's more about irresponsibility than responsibility. I'll be sure I'm in the mood for a heroine who needs a good talking to when I finally read it! (I'm another fan of order and not making waves.)

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  4. I read this a year or two ago. It was similarly contrary to my expectations, but I agree that's what makes it so interesting. It never goes quite the way you expect it to, and you come to expect the unexpected, which I think is unusual in a book.

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  5. I read this in its VMC edition several years ago and years ago. I was attracted at first by its bizarre title!

    I like your opening proviso and noticed Lucy's handiwork. My cat, Mandoo, used to bite my books and I have a few that have decimated front covers with repeated pin-prick bites; since his death six months ago I hold those books dear.

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  6. I read this years ago and came to it with such high expectations because so many writers cite it as favourite. But like you, I didn't really warm to Sally Jay and all I really remember is feeling irritated by her.

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  7. I can see how Sally Jay Gorce would be a divisive character. While she may be irresponsible and I probably would be annoyed with her in real life, the light and witty narrative voice of The Dud Avocado is what sucked me in and made me love the book.

    - Christy

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  8. Like Christy I loved this book when I read it a few years back. My introduction to it was via radio 4's book at bedtime so I knew what to expect when I read it. I was reminded a bit of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes which also has an amazingly irresponsible heroine. I failed utterly with 'The Old Man and Me' which is the other Dundy I've tried to read. Judging by how many I see 2nd hand I'm not alone in that.

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  9. I enjoyed Sally Jay's frankness and some of her one-liners although I did get lost in parts in the whirl of her slightly frantic lifestyle.

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  10. Hi! Thanks for the heads up in your review. Will be sure to read this book when I am not exasperated with real-life irresponsible people. Or maybe when I need a dose of irresponsibility myself. Thank you, too, for supporting the NYRB Reading Week!

    By the way, I was laughing at your honesty in saying you felt too intellectually lazy. I feel that often, too.:)

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  11. Have you read The Old Man and Me? I liked it mostly for its setting—London in the early sixties, pre-Beatles and rock n roll, still recovering from the war. I enjoyed it on a basic level, but like you with this one, I was sure it had more to analyze but I was too lazy to do so.

    I've been wanting to read Dud Avocado ever since.

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