The beautiful cover you see here is one of the new Virago VMC hardback designer collection which I was lucky enough to be sent recently. This one is taken from a fabric by the great textile designer Lucienne Day, and if, like me, you love a bit of retro, you may want to own this for the cover alone. But what about the novel?
I seem to have known about The Dud Avocado for my entire life without ever having read it. I suppose the title always seemed very striking to me -- and, when the novel was first published in 1958, avocados were a very new and exotic food for most people -- and also I knew that Elaine Dundy had been married to the famous theatre critic Ken Tynan, whose name was a household word, in my household, at least, when I was a nipper.
This is the story of Sally Jay Gorce, aged nineteen and on her own in Paris. And this is not just any old Paris, this is Paris in the 1950s, awash with aspiring painters, actors, dancers and general hangers on, all generally in varying degrees of inebriation. Most of Sally's life is spent in bars, cafes and night clubs, and sometimes she has no memory of how she ended up back in her hotel bedroom. Financed by a generous uncle, Sally has broken free of her restricted life back in the American mid-West and is living her childhood dream of staying out as late as she likes and eating whatever she likes at any time she wants to. She's also acquired a suave middle-aged lover, who takes her out to the Ritz, though she tends to stand out there rather, owing to her unsuitable clothes (evening dress worn all day long) and her pink hair ("dyed a marvellous shade of pale red so popular with Parisian tarts that season"). But as the novel begins she falls violently and painfully in love with the gorgeous Larry Keevil, a would-be theatre director and a devastating charmer. Being an aspiring actress herself, Sally manages to get a part in one of Larry's productions, but somehow she never quite manages to get Larry himself, who always seems to be entrapped by various Contessas, dancers and models, much to Sally's anguish. That doesn't stop her indulging her "mild nymphomania" elsewhere, and even when she settles down with a talented and good-hearted painter who obviously adores her she is unable to resist Larry's invitation to a house party in a villa in Biarritz, an adventure which has pretty disastrous consequences.
And so the story rollicks on, often as apparently disorganised as Sally's own life, though there is a plot and it does make sense and has a fairly satisfying (though possibly a bit too pat) denouement. But what is entertaining here is not just the plot -- it's Paris and above all it's Sally. 1950s Paris is just as you've always imagined it, and you could read this novel just for the social history. But Sally herself is a most fascinating and intriguing character. Outwardly kooky and vivacious, she is a mass of internal contradictions and is frequently confused about herself and her view of the world, and almost always unsure what she is doing and why she is doing it. In fact she is a pretty typical nineteen-year-old, and who's to say some of us might not have ended up behaving in much the same way and being equally confused about it if we had ended up with lots of money on our own in Paris for a year. Dundy has captured her voice and her thought processes perfectly, and the novel is often highly entertaining while at the same time rather nerve-wracking -- what on earth does Sally think she is doing? and doesn't she realise she's heading for disaster?
So I'm glad I finally got around to reading this -- thanks, Virago! and I look forward to the next beautiful new VMC -- watch this space.