Wednesday, May 30, 2012

100 Books #48 - Elaine Dundy's THE DUD AVOCADO

A casual look over the blurbs and whatnot for The Dud Avocado might make it seem like its heroine is just a blonde* Holly Golightly amuck in Paris (our narrator even mentions Audrey Hepburn at one point). And sure, Sally Jay Gorce has things in common with that famous character: she is beautiful, seems a bit careless (especially about her love affairs), and has a tendency to show up for lunch in an evening dress for complicated and amusing reasons. But really, she is more like a Henry James than a Truman Capote/Hollywood heroine, except with even more going on upstairs.**

The Dud Avocado reads like a story told over a long and leisurely lunch by a sly older woman who has lived more than you have, but still, somehow, has kept the ingenue's breathless "oh golly" quality even as she shrewdly and candidly analyzes her possible errors, her weird sort of luck, the impression of herself she has given to others and her impressions of others, both on the surfaces and down in reality. She never goes so far as to break that fourth wall and directly address the reader, but that sense of her looking over the reader's shoulder as the pages turn (or the e-ink screens click by) is palpable. She never crowds us, having much better instincts than that (though she'll insist she doesn't, that she's really just blundering along, but don't let her fool you. Every word counts, perhaps most so when it most seems like it wouldn't), but she's watching our reactions under her carelessly perfect eyelashes.

She is, after all, an actress, and great actresses are not just good performers but powerful students of human behavior. Or, at least she is now, over that imaginary lunch. And she was then, too, in the story she's telling, but she wasn't so good at applying her insights, by golly!

Sally Jay has been turned loose on Europe in much the way her spiritual ancestor, Isabel Archer, was: an older male well-wisher wanted to "give her her freedom" (i.e., financial independence) to see what she would do with it. Sally Jay gets just two years of this freedom, after which she is expected, more or less, to make her own way, by marriage or perhaps a job of some sort where her intelligence and creativity an attractiveness are put to use; times have (sort of) changed since Isabel's inheritance set her free to be manipulated into marrying a fortune hunter.

But there's that pesky "sort of". Once Sally Jay sort of backs into her "first real relationship" she finds herself part of a circle of couples giving each other dinner parties and when her painter boyfriend learns that she can't cook, he gives her  "a wry sort of some-women-are-made-for-only-one-thing smile." She doesn't quite resent this, but that's partly because she is still free, although she's starting to see, at this point, an unappealing end to that freedom. "Here I was practically fresh out of the egg... and here was everybody telling me to stop drifting and start living in this world; telling me to start cooking, and swering, and cleaning, and I don't know what. Taking care of grandchildren." Italics Dundy's.

Because of course a young woman who hasn't allowed herself to be trapped in a life of domestic bondage can only be drifting. Even at the dawn of the sexual revolution (for of course, Sally Jo is sexually liberated -- how do you think she backed into that relationship. Ah, me).

But still, she is free, and free in a way that few people ever will be, ever again, in our age of Four Square check-ins and GPS-equipped everything: “Frequently, walking down the streets in Paris alone, I’ve suddenly come upon myself in a store window grinning foolishly away at the thought that no one in the world knew where I was at just that moment.” When was the last time you felt like that?

And that, along with the funniness -- the out-of-the-mouth-of-a-babe wittiness, the accounts of clumsiness, the unintended consequences of that will to say "yes" to every opportunity -- is what keeps this book bubbling along. You'll finish it in no time, but it will stay with you, for while it may look light and frothy on the outside, it's quite tart. And sharp. Mwee wappa.

Many, many thanks to Rob, the BardoRobot, for telling me about this book!

*Well, okay, for most of the story it's actually pink.

**Not to say some of Henry James' women are not very intelligent, it's just that we only ever see them from the outside, usually gracefully posing near a window or in a garden. Sally Jay tells us exactly what she's thinking about everything and everyone she encounters, puts everyone and everything in its place and never stands still.

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