Lost & Found: Elisa Albert on Elaine Dundy

Elisa Albert

Elisa Albert pays homage to Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, the cult classic that puts the lit in chick lit and troubles the genre’s pejorative connotations.

The Dud Avocado, originally published in 1958 to enormous acclaim and reissued [in 2007] by New York Review Books, might benefit from a subtitle geared toward the ravenous potential audience for literary female coming-of-age stories that involved neither Manolos nor marriage. I propose Drink, Smoke, Fornicate. Elaine Dundy’s rash, immature, big-dreaming, irresponsible, entirely lovable twenty-one-year-old protagonist, Sally Jay Gorce, set loose in post-war Paris on a bequest from her very wealthy uncle Roger (he invented a particular kind of screw, you see), is fully invested in making precisely the kinds of mistakes from which one can easily imagine her attempting to recover at an ashram a decade or two hence.

At thirteen, having been struck by powerful wanderlust and run away from home for the third time (to Mexico), Sally Jay pleads her case to her benefactor: “It’s just that I know I the world is so wide and full of people and exciting things that I just go crazy every day stuck in these institutions. I mean if I don’t get started soon, how will I get the chance to sharpen my wits? It takes lots of training. You have to start very young.”

Uncle Roger muses, “The more I see of the world the more I realize how much we are haunted by our childhood dreams,” and promptly promises little Sally Jay her eventual freedom. Her freedom! And what does she plan to do with it? he wonders.

“I want to stay out as late as I like and eat whatever I like any time I want to,” she tells him. And some years later, both fulfill their promises. He puts up the cash, and goes to Paris.

Living in hotels, wearing an evening gown for a morning stroll through the Left Bank (because she forgot to pick up her laundry, natch), half-attempting to forge a career as an actress, dyeing her hair a very au courant shade of pale pink, losing her virginity to a dashing “Latin” from “the Embassy” for whom she has no particular affection (“I only did it because it seemed to be the glamorous thing to do at the time. It was my ideal of glamour.”): Sally Jay’s misadventures prove a thoroughly delightful narrative romp, no less literary for being centrally rooted in a feckless young woman’s voice and perspective. She’s not a girl of great substance just yet, but she is self-aware and funny, and she is living her life with wild, somehow totally appropriate abandon, a leaf on a breeze. “So green,” observes an acquaintance, comparing her to the avocado of the title, “So eternally green.”

Dundy, who died in May 2008, lived a jet-set life, as a jaw- and name-dropping list of exploits attests: she taught Piet Mondrian how to jitterbug, took acting lessons alongside Tony Curtis and Rod Steiger, watched bullfights in Spain with Tennessee Williams and Orson Welles, bemoaned literary success with Gore Vidal. She was married for some years to the English theatre critic Kenneth Tynan; their daughter Tracy’s godparents were Katherine Hepburn and Cecil Beaton. She got a fan letter from none other than Groucho Marx, who opened with “I don’t make it a habit of writing to married women, especially if the husband is a dramatic critic, but I had to tell someone (and it might as well be you since you’re the author) how much I enjoyed The Dud Avocado.”

The novel, which has never been out of print in England, is said to have been loosely based on Dundy’s own experience in Paris, but, as with any attempt to conflate author with story: whatever. Of her creative process, Dundy once noted: “When I got stuck I would say to myself, ‘What would I not do?’ And then have Sally Jay do it; and I would be off again.”

I discovered Dundy’s book while living abroad and in search of contemporary stories about travel, wanting to find myself, as ever, in novels. Female coming-of-age stories face uphill battles with “serious” readers these days, thanks to crappy genre saturation and—okay, I’ll say it—general misogyny. But this is chick lit, if we can possibly imagine a non-pejorative connotation of that annoying categorization and it’s all the more fun and liberating to feast on the half-century-old exploits of Sally Jay knowing full well just what kind of dumbed-down, husband-hunting harpy she might be in today’s context. Surely we’d see some embarrassing combination of jewel tones, shoes, and lipstick on the cover.

But 1958 was a good year for frothy girl-in-the-big-glam-city narratives; Breakfast at Tiffany’s made its way into print at the same time. Sally Jay Gorce has been compared to Daisy Miller, Holly Golightly, many a Jane Austen heroine, Bridget Jones, and let’s go ahead and add Carrie Bradshaw. Indeed, the culture critic Terry Teachout, who introduces this reissue, lays it right out: “I’ll bet money that some dewy-eyed young critic is going to read it for the first time and write an essay about how Sally Jay Gorce…was the spiritual grandmother of Bridget Jones.”

But The Dud Avocado is not a story about an innocent abroad who is thwarted by society and punished with death or spinsterhood. It is not a novel about a charming call girl. It is not a novel reiterating the dance of pride and prejudice. It is not a fluffy confection about professional woes and the search for a husband. The fact that Sally Jay wants very much to be loved and to love does not render her intellectually useless. The facts that her judgment is shaky and her taste in men laughable and her loyalty questionable do not make her unfit for thoughtful conversation. The fact that her wardrobe is of central importance in daily endeavors—what else are we to expect from Dundy, daughter of a very successful shmata merchant?—should not announce any lack of literary credibility or doom her to a pink ghetto.

I imagine that many, many people responded to the very real redemption and the reserves of true spiritual resource on display in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. And though Sally Jay’s story ends at what might be just the beginning of her own personal journey toward mature, adult fulfillment, she offers up a no less valuable portrait of life lived vitally, earnestly. With great humor and inexhaustible delight. “Uncle Roger,” Sally Jay thinks, spending the night in jail after some charactieristically foolhardy mix-up, “you can’t say I’m not trying.” Nope, we can’t: here is her freedom, and here is what she does with it. A flat-out convivial and substantive snapshot of a flawed, ferocious girl, which, though it could easily be mistaken for chick lit, can and should be read as so much more. How about just as “lit”?

Elisa Albert is the author of The Book of Dahlia and How This Night Is Different: Stories, both published by Free Press. She teaches creative writing at Columbia.