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October 29, 2008 |

By Miscellaneous | Books | October 29, 2008 |

Can someone explain to me this “chick lit” nonsense? When did novels concerning the female journey through life become ghettoized into a paperback genre full of materialistic, noodle-headed girlies? Not to get all Western Lit 101 or anything, but the English novel practically got off the ground with the trials and tribulations of a young lady named Pamela. Then there’s Becky Thatcher and Moll Flanders, later followed by Emma, the sisters Bennett, Dashwood, and across the pond, March. And I could bather on and on about Wharton and her tragic socialites. Tales of strong, determined women, making their way in the world today, aren’t new, but it seems like in the past decade, these stories have taken a decline in terms of their contribution to literary history (I blame you Helen Fielding and your Bridget “JUST QUIT FUCKING SMOKING ALREADY” Jones). Maybe I have this hysterical allergy to the subculture that venerates Carrie Bradshaw, but I steer clear of books that have that sheen of artificial modern womanhood slapped all over the covers, so I can’t pretend to even understand it, let alone relate, to it. What I have read of the genre makes me feel like an alien, disconnected from the rest of the XX crew. Sure I’ve got the ovaries, but I think God left out the part of my femaleness where I have a glamorous career, a retarded love life and an overwhelming devotion to designer shoes or handbags or fruity alcoholic drinks.

Then The Dud Avocado fell into my lap and gave me hope once again in the plight of female protagonist. Published in 1958, it is based partially on the author’s own experiences during the year she spent in Paris trying to establish an acting career. The heroine is a one Sally Jay Gorce, recent American college graduate who is sharply funny, intelligent, and flawed. And she frankly recognizes her own imperfections without indulging in overlong navel-gazing therapy sessions. The novel chronicles Sally Jay’s self-proclaimed mission to launch out into the world in search of freedom, experience, and sex. She lands in Europe with the explicit goal of getting laid. In her quest for accomplishing this, Sally Jay reveals herself to be impulsive and reckless and sometimes dumber than a bag of hammers, but she’s a heroine that as a reader you can really get behind. Her faults aren’t that far from my own and she’s wittier than hell when she details them:

I mean I was afraid of him. His jiving was out-of-this-world-but it stuck out a mile that he’d hit your head against the stone fireplace if he felt like it. I’m a real phony, one of those half-baked hot-house plants we’re growing nowadays, instead of the honest-to-God two-fisted women we should be, and, neurotic that I am, I shrink like mad from the criminal type. If anyone comes at me with a club, I duck, brother, I duck. And then I run.

Sally Jay’s observations on acting have a similarly prescient punch, “I mean, the question actors most often get asked is how they can bear saying the same things over and over again night after night, but God knows the answer to that is, don’t we all anyway; might as well get paid for it.”

Her story isn’t particularly fresh; her loves, crushes, and failed relationships not unlike any current protagonists’, but it’s Dundy’s deft writing that elevates her plight to the hysterically sublime yet completely relatable. Sally Jay endures a disastrous affair with an Older Man, falls in desperate, unrequited love with the Caddish Wrong Man, and then becomes enmeshed in a sweet domesticated relationship with the Nice Guy who she then tosses over for, who else, the Caddish Wrong Man and finally discovers that Caddish Wrong Man is all kinds of horribly Wrong but not until after she’s had her heart thoroughly stomped in the process. Swirling amongst her spastic love affairs is the wacky Paris post-War scene full of weirdoes, wannabes, party animals, and opportunistic ex-pats. Do you know that Beatnik club scene in Funny Face? Play it and ratchet up the volume as high as it will go and then rip the knob off. Then ingest some Ecstasy. That’s the Paris of Sally Jay Gorce.

Some of the shenanigans Sally Jay and her set get up to occasionally veer into slapstick territory, and ultimately, the conclusion to the story winds up a touch on the glossy side. But the pain and disappointment Sally Jay expresses as her naïveté is exposed to human nature at its most selfish and vile is so honestly conveyed that the loopy plot points can be excused. Just as you passionately root for her scattershot claim to free living, you feel the sting of her bitter disappointment, “I sat on, propped up on the table, staring blankly at nothing, like one of those Absinthe Drinkers. I noticed my elbows and arms were caked with dirt from all the dirty tables I’d been sitting at, and my hands black from all those dirty people I’d been meeting. I felt myself kind of slipping away.” Perhaps influenced by current standards in female-centered literature, movies, and television, I was intrigued by the fact that Sally Jay had no other close female characters of note in the book, only passing acquaintances and fellow party goers. She has no confidant, no circle of girlfriends, no Sunday brunch crowd. She’s left adrift in the wilderness to sort through the unchartered and the heartbreak alone. I was left to wonder which scenario is more true; the current model of Girl Power Sisterhood or Dundy’s vision of a Solo Voyager-every girl for herself. Maybe, I think, it’s a little of both.

Besides writing a great character in Sally Jay, Elaine Dundy also offers a rare and honest view of the Fifties that isn’t staid and stiff full of starched crinolines, sexual repression, and Tupperware parties. Her novel manages to be fresh of voice even 50 years after its initial publication. It’s rare that I find myself recommending a book over and over to people. Most recently I was extolling the virtues of Suite Française. Now I hear myself saying the most unlikely combination of words to people who want to know what good things I’ve been reading: The Dud Avocado. (Also, I seem to be writing my shortest book reports for some of the books I enjoyed the most. Like giving out samples of cinnamon fried dough to entice people to buy the whole bucket of sweet goodness at the mall pretzel stand. Read the book, dammit.)

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. Details are here and the growing number of participants and their blogs are here.

Cannonball Read / AlabamaPink

Books | October 29, 2008 |

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