Whenever I enthusiastically describe this book people ask, “What is a dud avocado?”—after we clarify dud, not dead. An avocado, in this context, is an American girl, the typical American girl, a new strain developed between 1900 and 1958, according to a Hungarian gentleman (a gourmand with possible pedophillic predilections).
“A hard center with the tender meat all wrapped up in a shiny casing.” The Hungarian eats his avocado and winks. The most interesting part about avocados, he continues, “you can take the stones of these luscious fruits, put them in water—just plain water, mind you—anywhere, any place in the world, and in three months up comes a sturdy little plant.”
Sally Jay Gorce is no longer green, her fresh creaminess eaten up by Paris, by men and other women and her own fervor to keep running. She is no longer green yet, from her polished stone, she has noticed no growth, no sprout. She is a dead avocado.
“A dud avocado?” asks the Hungarian and proposes a toast.
Sally Jay is nether a dud nor dead, she is simply a young American loose for the first time, in Paris no less, in the late 1950s with enough money and naivete to find trouble—from married men to missing passports to prostitution, Sally Jay finds herself at the center of a maelstrom of sin and French syntax.
“I want my freedom,” almost 13-year-old Sally Jay tells her uncle after her fourth failed attempt to run away from boarding school.
“What are you planning to do with it?” he asks, not mocking but in the way that lets children feel heard and understood.
“I want to stay out as late as I like and eat whatever I like any time I want to…I wouldn’t get introduced to anyone…I want to meet all the other people.” Thus uncle and niece strike a deal that lands Sally Jay, a newly minted college graduate, on an all-expenses-paid two year sojourn abroad.
Sally falls in and out of love about as often as she falls into the beds of men—more often than ladies of her generation could admit in polite company. She is as curious as Alice and bold as Colette (over the years critics compared Sally Jay to Isabel Archer with more slapstick and champagne, to a cross between Holden Caulfield and Carrie Bradshaw, or Daisy Miller with a bit of Erica Jong). She is an aspiring actress, clueless about clothing, a disaster in the kitchen, and is forever losing things: money, her passport, her heart, her common sense. Sally is as charming as she is disarming—as afraid as she is bold, lonely even surrounded by friends.
Sally’s Paris, while exiting and intoxicating and wholly foreign, is is as contained as a snow-globe of the Eiffel Tower. Her left-bank is eons from the struggles of post-war Paris, is far from the collapse of the Fourth Republic and is a decade younger than the setting of the infamous student uprisings in the late 1960s. Her left-bank is somewhere between the modern, on the make “floating Saint-Germainian” and the “Ancient, that grand old man of the Montparnasse set.” Artists and actors and Italian lovers populate her world.
Despite her youth and the carnal nature of her exploits, Sally Jay is deeper and less bourgeoisie than readers initially expect. She is running from a recurring dream in which she cannot escape from what appears to be a circulation desk at a library—everyone going somewhere except Sally Jay. This fear of the world leaving her behind, of forgetting to live, is an understandably indomitable force in Sally’s life, one that neatly fits into the origin story of her trip abroad (but no spoilers here).
Elaine Dundy wrote in 2006 that Sally Jay Gorce sprung fully formed from her head, like Athena from Zeus, when Dundy “opened a notebook and wrote, ‘I was walking down the street when suddenly…’ I thought, where is my heroine going, and why is she walking at noon down the Montparnasse in an evening dress?” Perhaps Sally Jay is a small piece of the author herself.
Dundy is no stranger to American girls abroad: she lived in Paris for a year before moving to London where, while waiting for her big break, she met her future ex-husband, the British theater critic Ken Tynman. Despite Tynman’s initial support, he eventually resented Dundy’s success. However, with praise coming from all sides Dundy knew she had found her place, not as a actress but as a writer. (From Gore Vidal to Laurence Olivier and Groucho Marx, critics and the literati loved this novel. Even Hemingway commented that Dundy’s characters all sounded different, “My characters all sound the same,” Hemingway said, “because I never listen.”)
Dundy does listen, and renders a set of characters, as well as a sense of time and place, with humor, and an eye for both the absurd and the generation-defying truths that make this story of sex, lies and love in Paris a classic coming-of-age tale. Sally Jay may not meet Dundy’s theater critic, but she does forge a path for herself, outside of social and political obligations, that entertains and comments on the roles of women in the world. Fabulous!