Elaine Dundy‘s The Dud Avocado is a sharply-observed, disarmingly frank, and extremely funny first novel about a young American woman bumming around Paris on her wealthy uncle’s dime. Originally published in 1958, the book was reissued last year as a part of the fine NYRB classics series, which specializes in reissues of underappreciated books and translations. (Sadly, Elaine Dundy passed away just a few days ago. See the NYRB Classics blog for more information, and links to tributes and an obituary.)
The Dud Avocado succeeds primarily because of the compelling voice of its young first-person narrator, Sally Jay Gorce, an aspiring actress who’s doing her best to get everything she can out of the freedom her uncle’s generosity has provided her. Sally’s narration is energetic, witty, and judgmental: she’s always attempting to assess and categorize every person she meets, wanting to find a way to define them, to figure out exactly who they are. Again and again in the book, Dundy gives us a hilarious summary judgment in Sally’s voice, and then more often then not later reveals that the person in question can’t be so easily categorized. One of the book’s central (and I think most interesting) ideas is that the process of coming of age involves learning to recognize that people generally aren’t who they might at first seem—that the reality of their lives is often much more complicated than whatever image they might be trying to project. There’s a sense in the book that Sally is just too inexperienced, too limited in her youthful and sheltered American perspective, to know enough to accurately the size people up. But at the same time, Dundy seems to suggest that as an adult, you must learn this skill: that sometimes your fortune or even your life may depend on making the right judgments about the people you meet.