This wonderful book came into my life by accident, perhaps as all truly delightful books do. I was reading an article about Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City (it’s great, give it a go http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/apr/19/sex-city-bushnell-hadley-freeman), placing it in the tradition of Edith Wharton, Dorothy Parker and Mary McCarthy. Having included Bushnell in such hallowed company, the journalist went on to make reference to Elaine Dundy ‘whose wonderful 1958 novel, The Dud Avocado, which was set in Paris, has more than a touch of Sex and the (French) City to it.’ That was enough to pique my interest, and after a bit of Googling, I bought a second-hand copy on Amazon. Little did I know just how much of a treat I was in for.
Our heroine is Sally Jay Gorce, an American in Paris. She’s a young woman of some small means, who is having a two-year jaunt in Europe financed by an indulgent uncle. When we first meet her, she is three months in, sauntering down the Left Bank on a September morning. She’s wearing an evening dress because it’s all she’s got left (who can get to the laundry in time to pick up their clothes?), and has dyed her hair pink (it’s ‘a marvelous shade of pale red so popular with Parisian tarts that season’). Over the coming minutes, hours, days and weeks she decides she’s in love with her American ne’er do well friend Larry, ditches her married (or is he?) lover, takes the stage by storm, and high-tails it to Biarritz for the summer, where she gets a bit-part in a film financed by a famous bull-fighter. And all of this in a haze of martini hangovers and not enough sleep. It’s genius.
Apparently the book caused a bit of a stir when it was published in 1958, and I suppose I can see why. Dundy presents the semi-autobiographical adventures of Sally Jay with such charming frankness. No apology is made for her promiscuity, drunkenness, temper-tantrums, ill-advised friendships or falling out with the American consulate over a mislaid passport. I lost count of the number of times the book made me laugh out loud, even though the writing is totally straight. Every page is crammed with quotable, read-aloud lines. The description of a group of young men who fancy themselves hipsters was a particular favourite (perhaps because I work in excruciatingly trendy Hoxton): ‘A rowdy bunch on the whole, they were most of them so violently individualistic as to be practically interchangeable’.
Sally Jay greets all of the situations she gets herself into, and the people she meets, with the same dead-pan self-absorption. Generally speaking she can barely be bothered to raise an eyebrow, and her caustic observations reveal just how bright and complicated this neurotic tram-smash is. She gets into such pickles, but always with her eyes open; she just seems unable to say no or do the sensible thing. Or doesn’t want to. She’s rarely troubled by what other people think of her, but is her own harshest critic.
If you’ve ever fancied yourself as a girl about town, or given yourself a hard time because you lost your mobile phone on a night out, woke up next to someone you shouldn’t have, or spent your rent money on shoes, this is the book for you. Or even if you haven’t, you really should give it a whirl. Sally Jay is a girl you’ll never forget.