Review: The Dud Avocado, Elaine Dundy (NYRB Classics)

Someone I love: Joan Wyndham
Someone I hate: Ernest Hemingway
Combine them and you get: Elaine Dundy

As you can imagine, I had a strange combination of feelings about The Dud Avocado.  It’s a semi-autobiographical novel about a young expatriate American party girl and her relationship with an American man called Larry, whom she runs across in Paris.  When she runs into Larry, she’s involved with a married Italian, but she immediately fancies herself in love with Larry and becomes involved in a theatre production that he’s directing.  Along the way she has various romantic entanglements and – well, okay, there is not an airtight plot.  You’re not reading for that.  You’re really reading for the characters and Sally’s narrative voice.

The aforementioned narrative voice is nearly perfect sometimes, and Dundy gives her characters wonderful things to talk about.  In an early scene when our heroine, Sally Jay Gorce, eats lunch with Larry, he tells her that he has made a study of classifying the different types of tourists.  It’s bang on:

“Basically,” he began, “the tourist can be divided into two categories.  The Organized – the Disorganized.  Under the Organized you find two distinct types: first, the Eager-Beaver-Culture-Vulture with the list ten yards long, who just manages to get it all crossed off before she collapses of aesthetic indigestion each night and has to be carried back to her hotel…”

I may be this kind of tourist by nature.  The thing is that I have read a lot of books, and it is exciting to be able to see the things you have read about (read about, not seen – if you have seen pictures of major landmarks then very often you will get there and find they look exactly like the pictures and are not as interesting as you imagined they would be).  Fortunately I have managed to learn that the nicest thing you can do when you are abroad is find a good place to have breakfast (outside or by a large window), and have breakfast there each morning with a book to disguise the fact that you are people-watching.

And people-watching is largely what makes The Dud Avocado enjoyable.  If I may say so, Elaine Dundy is far better than Ernest Hemingway at making me want to spend (bookish, not actual) time with the 1950s disaffected expatriate set.  Sally describes the cliqueish behavior of the various artist and actor groups in a way that makes them spring to life.  I think this works so well because Dundy is essentially writing about her own life.  Sally is still young and naive in a lot of ways, but Dundy doesn’t lack the necessary critical distance.  I could have spent the entire book reading conversations between Sally’s friends and friends of friends.

Good times.  Actually, the more I think about The Dud Avocado, the less I mind its lack of plot and vaguely Hemingway-like tone.  It’s not as charmingly spontaneous as Joan Wyndham.  But then nobody who is not actually Joan Wyndham can really be expected to be Joan Wyndham, so I should forgive Elaine Dundy on that front.

I read The Dud Avocado for the Spotlight Series NYRB Classics Tour.  Again I say, up with independent presses!

49 thoughts on “Review: The Dud Avocado, Elaine Dundy (NYRB Classics)

  1. I had read a review of this before and added it to my wishlist instantly, and after reading your review it is still there. I have to admit that I’ve never read Hemingway or Wyndham.

    • I know that there are many people who would not agree with me on this front, but you don’t need Hemingway. Hemingway is no good. Whereas Joan Wyndham is amazing and should be read by everyone.

  2. your description had me sold. seems like something i would enjoy, and would be good to take me down a notch after a couple heavier books.

    then you mentioned the “vaguely Hemingway-like tone”… there is not be a stronger play you could make in order to make me read a book. reference Ernie and i am bound to have to pay attention 🙂

  3. I looked at this in a bookstore recently, now will have to look again! I did enjoy Hemingway’s description of ’20s Paris in A Moveable Feast, so more of the same can only be a good thing.

    (I was also that kind of tourist my first time in Paris… I wanted to see so much art and then it was a bit disappointing, being just like the textbook pictures. My favourite things there ended up being walking to and sitting by the Seine and going to the Pere Lachaise Cemetery and the Sainte Chapelle, which has gorgeous huge stained glass windows. Also eating french pastries!)

    • I think the problem is that when you go wanting to see something particular (a specific painting or landmark), it can’t help but look like the picture in the books. I felt so let down by the Tower of London. I’ve come to the conclusion that traveling is all about finding nice walks, and nice breakfast cafes.

  4. Thanks for this review. I must admit that I’d never heard of John Wyndham (I had to keep rereading her name to make sure it wasn’t the name of another author in the NYRB Classics series, John Wyndam)—but now I’ve got to check her out.

    • I always think she must be related to Day of the Triffids John Wyndham – but I don’t think she is. She kept diaries in her youth in England (during World War II, like), and published them later on. I love her so, so much.

  5. Your civics teacher sounds HILARIOUS in a way that is completely wrong! My goodness. I am so glad you enjoyed this book. Sometimes, I think most people writing in the 1950s had some sort of bizarre ennui about their fairly privileged expat lives.

    Now I want to read Wyndham.

    • Oh, that civics teacher was terrible. I sensibly took civics correspondence to avoid her. She one time assigned my sister’s civics class to make political cartoons, but she told them that if their cartoons criticized the government, it would be treason and she’d have to report them.

      Also: You should absolutely read Wyndham. I am kind of thinking I should have done her for your With Reverent Hands thing, rather than Greensleeves.

      • awww, I’d totally forgotten about the political cartoon thing! Awwwww! I liked her cartoon.

  6. I JUST finished reading Dundy’s other NYRB title—The Old Man and Me—for this tour. I think it’s very similar except it’s the 1960s and the main character is in London instead of Paris!

    Regardless, I totally love the covers on both of these books, which made me want to read them in the first place. I’ll have to pick up this one now!

    • I wish I’d known that existed! I like London better than Paris (insofar as I have never been to Paris and I have been to London), I bet I’d enjoy that more. I’m going to read that one soon!

      • If it were not for the unfortunate fact that it is in france, and therefore people speak french and the books in the used book places are in french, I would much prefer Paris to London.

      • anna, not *all* the used book places in Paris are French – I used to have a nice little circuit for Saturday afternoons of about half a dozen second-hand bookshops that supplied my English bookshelves. Shakespeare & Company is the famous one, then there’s the San Francisco Book Company, the Abbey Bookshop, another one right behind Odeon, and 2 French ones on the boulevard St-Michel that have trolleys of English books – often a very, um, eclectic assortment, those…

        So next time you’re in Paris, check the expat websites for a nice little book tour ;o)

        I cannot recommend Shakespeare & Company enough (it’s not the original shop but it is a great place). It’s on the Left Bank opposite Notre Dame but still a bit tricky to find if you don’t check the map very carefully.

        Outside the front are loads of second-hand books; inside is new books (and an elderly piano in the back); and if you go up the tiny steep staircase right at the back you find a whole series of cramped little rooms with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves full of all kinds of books that are not for sale, but just there for you to read. You can sit down and read until it closes at midnight.

        If you’re there on Sunday afternoon you may get invited up to the owner’s appartment upstairs for a tea party, and drink tea out of a jamjar because there aren’t enough cups. Writers and literature students can often stay there free in exchange for a few hours’ work in the shop, and they sleep on daybeds in amongst the books. Reading groups meet there, squished along wooden benches around the piles of hardbacks. There’s a little niche with a lamp, a chair and a big black old-fashioned typewriter and sometimes someone’s in there typing away… Um, can you tell I liked it there?

        And back to the original topic – Jenny, I’m with you on Hemingway. Except for A Moveable Feast, I would be put off by any Hemingway-esque references. But people-watching from a breakfast cafe is always a winner!

      • parisreader-if only I’d known that when I was there! I was sighing sadly and passing by all these extremely tempting looking used bookstores, it would have so improved the trip had I known. If ever I am forced back to Paris I will definitely do that, but I’m hoping never to again be dragged anywhere where I can’t speak the language: Paris as a city was surprisingly nice, but I suck at French, as the poor people who attempted to teach me bits before I left can attest

      • There’s also Tea & Tattered Pages, on the Rue Maynet at Duroc. And there’s a nice Canadian bookstore somewhere near Shakespeare & Co., but I forget where it is or what it’s called. It has a Canadian flag out front, though.

  7. I have this on my shelf, and if I had done the Spotlight series it’s the very book I was going to read. I’m glad you ended up liking it; I’m looking forward to reading it myself sometime this century.

    • I was glad the Spotlight series came up doing NYRB, because I bought The Dud Avocado over a year ago, and if not for this tour, who knows when I’d have gotten around to it?

  8. As I know I’ve mentioned before on your blog, I loved this book! Sally Jay Gorce is such an engaging narrator. The ending surprised me a bit, but not in a bad way. And she just steamrolls right to the end, without a real let-up in energy.

  9. I’ve read tons of breathlessly enthusiastic posts about this so now not sure where I will lean when I eventually get around to reading it!

    I have never heard of Joan Wyndham…off to look her up!

    • She is wonderful, Joan Wyndham. She did diaries when she was a girl in London in world War II – lovely, funny, un-self-conscious diaries. She writes about living in London in World War II in a way that makes me think I would have managed London during World War II nothing at all like that. I adore her.

  10. I am the same way about traveling. My husband is more of the “make no plans – see things on the spur of the moment traveler.” I, on the other hand, always have an itinerary that includes a list of alternate things to see with hours open and price of admission listed, just in case. I’m sure it seemed over the top to my husband at first, but it actually saved us time twice when we were in London about 5 years ago (that was the first time I imposed the itinerary on our travels).

    So now he’s pretty happy when he sees me putting together an itinerary for our trips. Of course I’m flexible and realistic about what we actually have time for.

    I have heard of this book in passing, but really didn’t know what it was about until your review. It does sound like a fun read.

    • I am definitely NOT spur-of-the-moment girl, but I have tried to cut back on the number of things I feel I have to see. I think one of the reasons that I want to go back to London as often as possible is that I know I won’t waste time getting lost every day, or trying to decide what new things to see. I can pick a few new things, and spend the rest of my time having nice breakfasts and seeing the things I already know I like.

  11. I have heard this title mentioned before, but had no idea what it was about. It does sound like something I would like and I will have to try to seek out a copy of my own. I am not a big Hemingway fan either, but it sounds like you really don’t have to be to enjoy the book. Great review and thanks for sharing it with us!

    • You don’t have to be a Hemingway fan, but I bet it would help. However, I am probably as little fond of Hemingway as anyone could be, and I still enjoyed it.

  12. I will definitely have to read this one at some point (and the one mentioned above about London!). I’m getting to appreciate books with no plot a bit more. 😉

    • I like books to have plot. If a book is going to be thin on the plot, it has to have a strong combination of atmosphere, characters, and narrative voice. I didn’t get the atmosphere so much on this one, but characters and narrative voice, yes. Whereas something like I Capture the Castle is far better because it scores high on all three measures.

      (I like how scientific that sounds. I am going to start considering those to be my criteria.)

  13. I always think of Hemingway as having big thick sausage-like fingers for some reason, and typing with his indexes only. Very meaty. I prefer Maugham: he takes all the good things from Hemingway (expats, exotic locales, cynicism) and writes much, much better. imnsho.

    Your intro to this post reminds me of Eloise (you know Eloise, don’t you?)

      • Was that really why? Ordinarily I’d assume you were joking, but I would believe almost anything of dreadful Hemingway.

    • Eloise the girl in the New York hotel that I can’t remember the name of? I never read those books when I was small – which in retrospect surprises me.

      Maugham, you say? I will have to hunt him down. I am never sure, because I dislike Hemingway so much, if his topics are ones I could never enjoy, or if it’s only because he’s awful that I hate his books.

      • The reason you girls never had Eloise when you were little is because I did have her when I was small and always found her somewhat creepy and frightening. Plus, why was a little girl living in a hotel? Disturbing, right? (I’m still not over it.)

  14. I don’t dislike Hemmingway, possibly because I haven’t yet read enough of him. More of an amazed head-shaking, followed by laughter. He’s like a middling poet who occasionally comes up with a really good phrase. His short stories are easiest to take.

    What was the other distinct type of organized tourist? Maybe I was that kind.

    • So I should really have responded to this comment when I was still at home with my copy of The Dud Avocado, instead of waiting until I moved far away. Which is to say: I do not know what the other kind of organized tourist is. But I do have some slight resentments over my sublessor’s choice of morning beverage.

      Don’t bother reading more Hemingway. He’s terrible and clearly disliked women A LOT. I had to read several of his short stories and The Sun Also Rises when I was in school and I swear never never never again shall I read any more Hemingway. Unless I feel like it. (That’s the kind of oath I mostly swear. :p)

    • It is lovely. I arrived in my Impressive Academic Town on Saturday afternoon, and I feel like I’ve spent most of my time here since then casting a critical eye over all the breakfast places and trying to decide which one I will take for my own.

      Also, yes, you do want to read Joan Wyndham more. Then it will be like Daddy-Long-Legs, and everyone will read Joan Wyndham, and I will not be alone in loving her. :p

  15. Hey all Paris is a great haven for book collectors, all languages! Go to the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers and you will find a French League as well. Nearly all the countries have their own leagues where the book dealers post their items and you can scroll through them. When ever I travel, I always try to find some hours to scrounge the book stores, especially the out of the way places. Some great finds, I have made, right under everyone’s nose…

  16. I tbr’d this and Love Lessons. I am more the disorganized tourist, just like to wander and see what I see.
    That civics teacher!??! eek.
    and I love shoes, too. I never seem to wear my favorites – hate to get them scuffed up.

    • Often my favorite shoes are the ones I have least cause to wear because they are fancy, or only go with one particular outfit. I have a smashing pair of black and white heels but I fear getting them scuffed AND do not want to wear them with anything that will look less amazing with them than the outfit for which I purchased them.

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