We never tire of reading about Americans in Paris. Somehow, despite reeking of clichés, tales of their adventures retain their youthful, starry-eyed allure. Perhaps the Queen of les Américaines à Paris, however, is the heroine of Elaine Dundy’s debut novel. Truly, there are few books as effervescent, jokes as laugh-out-loud funny, or characters as unintentionally wise—The Dud Avocado is required reading for any gal casting Paris as home sweet home.
Following a childhood of repeated runaway schemes, Sally Jay Gorce is granted two years of freedom, fully paid for by her wealthy Uncle Roger. Upon arrival in Paris, she promptly dyes her hair pale pink. “Hellbent for living,” she throws herself into both the avant-garde Montparnasse café circle, and the arms of various gentlemen. We first meet Sally Jay wandering the Boulevard St. Michel on a hot September day. It’s mid-morning, and she’s still wearing a cocktail dress. By the end of lunch, she’s drunk, she’s bumped into her Italian lover, and she’s fallen in love with Larry Keevil, a sketchy American on the make.
We follow her from the Ritz to Le Select, Paris to the South of France, rubbing elbows with both the upper classes, eccentrics, and criminals. The plot itself is disorganized and highly improbable. The division between Part One and Part Two is a descent into utter madness. Nonetheless, it’s Sally Jay’s compelling voice that keeps the reader on the straight and narrow. Dundy’s rhythmic prose is highly quotable. In fact, every third line or so holds yet another arch aphorism that merits an underline. It’s rare a book sends me into audible laughter, and I found myself cackling aloud wherever I found myself.
Unintentionally and unexpectedly wise, Sally Jay’s commentary brings life into sharp focus, from the state of your hair reflecting the state of your spirit—”I’m going to have it dyed silvery blonde, very pale, very subdued because of my great sorrow”— to women’s issues—“I reflected wearily that it was not easy to be a Woman in these stirring times. I said it then and I say it now: it just isn’t our century”—to rejection—”My grief is too real, and my tears and my pain. Someone quite independent of myself has taken control; I can only obey. It’s no good saying over and over again ‘But you didn’t want him..'”
Though Sally Jay is undeniably the draw, Dundy’s secondary characters pack a punch: Judy hangs on her every word; Teddy, the Italian Diplomat, is as determined to marry her as the Countess is determined to steal Larry Keevil out from under her nose; the Hard Core, a gang of Montparnasse artistes and aesthetes, become her set; and wholesome, all-American Cousin John just can’t seem shut up.
While sixty-odd years have passed since Sally Jay’s madcap misadventures made their debut, it’s striking to note just how much Paris has stayed the same. The artist café quartier has certainly shifted from the likes of Le Select and Le Dôme, and the heyday of residential hotels and readily available employment for Americans remain firmly in the past. Yet there’s a timelessness to these accounts.
Even in 2017, griping about Paris prices remains a favorite topic of conversation among expats and Parisians alike. English language theater troupes and artist gangs are still alive and well, and as improbable as it sounds, Sally Jay’s seemingly insane run-ins with famous photographers, Princes, and movie directors have their own modern-day counterparts. Dundy captures the anything-can-happen- here frisson of excitement I’ve experienced on more than one occasion. In my experience, at least, Paris is a city where opportunity knocks—strange opportunity. Similarly, in describing meeting fellow Americans abroad, Dundy nails the subject firmly on the head:
“[T]wo Americans re-encountering each other after a certain time in a foreign land are supposed to clamber up their nearest lampposts and wait tremblingly for it all to blow over.”
Indeed, for whatever reason, we all seem unfailingly wary of each other. I pin it on the trepidation of being confronted with a native of the society you’ve fled, and projecting the vilest of the vile on your unwitting compatriot. While there are exceptions to every rule—Larry Keevil, in Sally Jay’s case—I chuckled to recognize this trope alive and well in present day Paris.
Similarly, in her description of cheeky waiters, I recognized echoes of my own whirlwind nights in the City of Light:
“By merely clattering up the used cups and saucers on to their trays, flicking their napkins over the table, better to clear the stage for disaster, and repeating your order precisely as given, they could predict for you the whole miracle that was about to take place four hours later when you—the now transformed, tousled, shiny, vague-eyed you—would emerge, talking the most utter balderdash, spilling beans of shattering truths or equally shattering lies, singing with friends, fighting with strangers, promising favors, promising love, scrambling into bed and clambering back out again…all this they could predict for you as relentlessly as any Delphic Oracle, while at the same time it all struck them as so irresistibly funny they couldn’t help chuckling.”
I find the novel so quotable that I’m happily on my way to retyping the entire text, but I’ll leave the rest of dear Sally Jay’s quips as a delightful surprise. From humor to heartbreak, The Dud Avocado truly has it all.