As part of our Virago Modern Classics 40th anniversary celebrations, the Virago team have each chosen a favourite title from the #VMC40 series. Each month, we will introduce the book and share with you why we love it.
This August our #VMC40 book of the month is The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy.
The Dud Avocado
By Elaine Dundy
“As a rule,” Sally says at one point, “I’m rather fond of excitement”
The Dud Avocado tells the story of 21-year-old recent graduate Sally Jay Gorce, granted an all-expenses paid two years of freedom in Paris by her Uncle Roger – on the condition that when she gets back she tells him all about her adventures. What’s not to love about Sally Jay? She is a riot, excitable and chaotic, flitting from one champagne-soaked party to the next and having to wear an evening gown in the day because all her clothes are in the laundry. We have all been there. On first reading, I recognized elements of myself and my friends immediately. She is these days, what would be known as a ‘hot mess’. If she was galivanting around Paris in 2018, her Instagram feed would be full of cocktails, memes of suffering from 3-day hangovers and – dare I say it – bottomless brunches with avocado and toast?
Sally Jay is described nearing the end of the novel as the avocado of the novel’s title: ‘The Typical American girl … A hard centre with the tender meat all wrapped up in a shiny casing … So green – so eternally green.’ Out of Sally Jay’s inexperience comes an insatiable appetite for life that you have to admire and is so self-deprecating you allow yourself to indulge her privilege and fall in love with her. Throughout the course of the novel she has lover who is a married Italian diplomat, falls in love over a glass of Pernod, dies her hair pink as it is ‘so popular with Parisian tarts that season’ has lots of sex and champagne cocktails, acts in a play, goes to jail, all the while having nothing to guide her but her curiosity and desires and trying to find out what it means to live. If that isn’t the ultimate ‘gap-year’ I don’t know what is.
Her scrapes, although slapstick and outrageous, ring true of any young person on the cusp of life who wants feels invincible and wants to experience everything, and her adventures with and questions about sex are the very same women face today. She wants to behave ridiculously, but also be taken seriously. She is Daisy Miller, Holly Golightly, Holden Caulfield, Jennifer North – but also the original Carrie Bradshaw, Bridget Jones, and more recently perhaps Hannah Horvath or a Phoebe Waller-Bridge, but as Rachel Cooke notes in her 2011 introduction and that I agree with, Sally Jay is the funniest of them all.
Hayley Camis, Publicity Manager
“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.”
Reading Group Questions:
- In the opening scenes when Sally Jay meets Larry, she seems to have an orgasm as he touches her, which would have been outrageous upon publication. The novel is trailblazing in many ways. What does the novel say about the frank treatment of female sexuality in fiction?
- Sally Jay is promised her two years of funded freedom at 13 after her fourth thwarted attempt at running away from her dull existence in America, but only after she earns her degree. With her epiphany at the end of the novel, what does the book say about the reality of freedom and dreams?
- There are many ways that men are caricatured throughout the novel. What is the author trying to say with each one? Is she harder on the male characters than the women?
- When Teddy brandishes Sally Jay a ‘slut’ for breaking up with him, Sally Jay reflects ‘it was not easy to be a Woman in these stirring times’. What does the novel say about women?
- How does the author use humour to make the novel crucially different from other American in Paris novels (Fitzgerald, Hemingway, James etc.)?
“That’s my answer to the question what is your strongest emotion, if you ever want to ask me: Curiosity, old bean. Curiosity every time.“
Elaine Dundy, Obituary New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/10/books/10dundy.html
Rachel Cooke’s introduction, The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/aug/26/dud-avocado-elaine-dundy-rereading
Rosecrans Baldwin, ‘You Must Read This’ on NPR: https://www.npr.org/2012/04/12/149547202/hell-bent-for-living-a-screwball-parisian-adventure
“The world is wide, wide, wide, and I am young, young, young, and we’re all going to live forever!”