The Dud Avocado – Elaine Dundy

The Dud Avocado is an energetic and funny story about a 21-year-old who is very persistent on exploring Europe herself, carrying a defiant attitude with her everywhere. She reminds me a little of the girl-against-the-world motif, though I haven’t read something quite as sizzling and, I would say, tragic, as Sally Jay’s story. The chaotic backdrop of 1950s Europe, the twisted motivations of each character and the naivety of a young and attractive woman come together for a one of a kind coming of age tale.

Sally Jay’s journey is filled with parties that end in very comical and unexpected ways. Elaine Dundy showcases her brilliant talent in describing people – their gestures, language, attitude – and brings each person together to form vivid partying scenes and endless nights. The lavish social gatherings where elites backstab and steal and form plots against one another are chaotic and horrendous, but are also luxurious and generous: “by merely clattering up the used cups and saucers onto their trays, flicking their napkins over the table, the better to clear the stage for disaster, […], they could predict for you the whole miracle that was going to take place four hours later when 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 out again […]” At some of these parties, Sally Jay ends up in trouble; at others, she learns truths about the people she used to trust, and therefore “grows up”. It is a brutal coming-of-age story because she pays for her lessons with high prices, from losing her passport to being betrayed by a man she thinks she loves. Mid way through the novel, Sally Jay reflects: “Well, I’d certainly stayed out late and eaten what I liked. And I was meeting people I hadn’t been introduced to. […] I was more or less in jail. Uncle Roger, I thought, you can’t say I’m not trying.”

Not only was the social background of her journey chaotic, the motives of the people who accompany her – lovers, co-workers, friends – questionable and twisted, leaving Sally Jay lonely and abandoned. This was not very apparent in the first part of the book, but the foreshadowing of her sleeping alone many nights despite attracting the attention of many bachelors leads to her apparent solitude in the second and third parts. This feeling is emphasized by the dramatic change in the atmosphere: from energetic parties to the barrenness of the countryside, confined by the pouring rain and heartbreak that she experiences for the first time. In the second backdrop, however, she becomes wiser and start to see the truth without the veil of wealth and lust. It is loneliness that allows Sally Jay to “come of age” and eventually find what she wants in life (very unexpected she chose to become a librarian, which has a large amount of time being alone).

Sally Jay reflects some classic sentimentality the youth finding their way to adulthood. She is a headstrong woman who has the power to refuse the things she does not like, but it still takes a long time for her to realize what she does like. When she found a man who loves her and they share a mutual deep relationship, Sally Jay, however, recognizes: “I tried to remember one minute that whole weekend when Marion and I weren’t either feeding people, or clearing up from doing it, or preparing to do it again. And presumably she never stopped doing it. But I couldn’t quite see why just because she did, I should.” So she forsakes the traditional responsibilities of a woman, and she has the wealth and power to do so, but she is still lost in a world of possibilities: “what happens when your curiosity just suddenly gives out? When the will and the energy snap and it all seems so once-over-again?” Sally Jay – or rather Elaine Dundy – is so charming, however, that I root for her till the end, even when she is afraid she won’t “burst into bloom”, like “a dud avocado”. Once again, the themes of coming-of-age appears: the low self-esteem and anxiety of a young woman who does not have a life plan.

Through all her lovers and adventures, Sally Jay in the end still found a place she belongs. “The Dud Avocado” is a coming of age story as much as it is a feminist empowerment story. If you are not charmed by Sally Jay’s misadventures, then you’d still be dazzled by her bewildering world.