The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy
Can you picture me reading Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado? Rapt in a lush velvet armchair, lapping up the novel’s mid-century expat Parisian gaiety? Well, that’s not me, not exactly. Instead, I’m the one maddened by the excessiveness of the whole pageant, to the point of irritably googling: “How did Americans just stay in France in the mid-20th century?” Everyone just seemed so eternally blasé, and socially, well, chill. My search taught me that passport and visa controls in Europe were lifted or at least loosened in the space after World War II to increase labor mobility and tourism. So I guess they let Americans, newfound war and cultural riches in hand, just linger to sip wine and erotically gallivant?
Early on in The Dud Avocado, the attractive, if a bit conventional, young, white American theater director, Larry Keevil, gives the protagonist, Sally Jay Gorce—also attractive, also a bit conventional—a lecture on different types of tourists in Paris. He classifies her as a certain type of sophisticated and catastrophic tourist; she considers and resists and reconsiders his judgment of her; she says, dramatically, she’s fallen in love. But with whom?!
Throughout my reading of the 1958 novel, I kept returning to this moment in the student cafe when Sally Jay is on her way to meet her lover, an older Italian man, and stops to hang out with Larry instead. Does Sally Jay fall in love with Larry simply because he dominates her in this moment intellectually? Would she have fallen in love with him, or said she had fallen in love with him, if he had let her categorize herself? Or if she were able to slip away from categorization altogether? Perhaps a young American woman dawdling around Paris can afford such leisure? Or wants to? Anyway, what do my prickly reservations matter in a young woman’s charming coming-of-age story?
With all these questions in hand, I couldn’t really figure out why I was reading The Dud Avocado. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. I enjoyed the time to think about stray transnationalisms, easy transnationalisms, expensive transnationalisms. U.S. imperialism, avocado toast, brunch, cafe culture, staying out drinking, illness, bodies, consumption, and capitalism. I even enjoyed the nights Elaine Dundy took me out dancing, and I enjoyed being a foreigner on the Basque coast with Sally Jay when the sun finally came out over the sea.
But I could not figure out why I was reading the book, even after having finished it. I kept thinking about Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and how reading The Dud Avocado kind of reminded me of reading Plath’s novel. Do you remember in The Bell Jar when Esther Greenwood discusses the avocado as a class marker in the northeastern United States? As you can guess, avocados come up in The Dud Avocado (I’m not going to spoil the story by telling you how!) so this might be what brings the two books together in my mind: fatty fruits, a genre of coming-of-age novels that rely on fatty fruits, these being the avocado genre’s ripe twin stars.
That said, while The Bell Jar deals forthrightly with friendships among women and with mental health, The Dud Avocado seems to skate around such meaningful topics. At a few moments, Dundy’s novel approaches meaningful moments addressing sexuality and class—but it mostly avoids dealing with these subjects, along with race, ability, and other sorts of privilege or lack thereof. Instead, it embodies the escapism its characters dwell in and bandy about. In 1958, when the book was written, people, including Americans, could just stay in Paris if they had the money and connections. So perhaps we can simply say the book, like the American empire it encapsulates and embodies, hasn’t aged too well.
Then again, maybe I’m just too literal of a reader, getting hung up when I don’t find my critique of racialized capitalism in a blasé novel full of white people getting drunk on absinthe in mid-twentieth century Paris?
In any case, I can at least say The Dud Avocado did make me want to leave my phone at home next time I go out. And to be selective about whom I go out with.–Maya Weeks