Hellbent For Living: A Screwball Parisian Adventure

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Rosecrans Baldwin is the author of Paris, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down.

It's not always the case, but Americans are feeling pretty good about the French these days. Look at this year's Academy Awards: Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, his top-grossing movie of all time, was nominated in four categories. More telling: This year's Best Picture statue went to a French film, The Artist, for the very first time.

Granted, it took a film in which no French is actually spoken for the Gauls to bring home the gold. But if you're the type of person who's even once considered wearing a beret, I thoroughly recommend reading Elaine Dundy's first novel, The Dud Avocado.

This book has been in and out of print since it was first published in 1958. I picked it up when it was reissued in 2007 because of the cover. It featured a discreetly obscured nude woman — which is entirely appropriate: The Dud Avocado is the riveting story of a carbonated American girl thundering through Paris in the 1950s. Her name is Sally Jay Gorce, and her default speed, as she puts it, is "hellbent for living."

Basically, if you were to set Henry James' Portrait of a Lady near the Sorbonne, untangle the sentences and add more slapstick, sex and champagne cocktails, you're getting close.

When we first meet Sally, she's bumming around the Boulevard St. Michel in an evening gown — because the rest of her wardrobe is at the laundry. Her hair's dyed red, part of her new Parisian look. Within 10 pages she's gotten drunk, fallen in love with a boy at a cafe, and also run into her lover, an Italian diplomat who likes to buy her cocktails at the Ritz. The rest of the book finds Sally dodging trouble, tearing through nightclubs, going to jail and getting mixed up with a slave-trader in the south of France. "As a rule," Sally says at one point, "I'm rather fond of excitement."

But it's not the hijinks that keep us engrossed — it's Sally's voice and disposition. She's complex: self-aware, very funny, shrewdly observant.

Through her eyes we see a Paris where newcomers drink too much, fall in love with the architecture, and kiss the cobblestones in the moonlight. Sally is both a lush and an incurable romantic, which can become irksome. Due to the beauty of Paris she is constantly floating off curbs and getting run over in traffic. But Sally is less hedonistic and more anti-boredom. She can't stand, she says, "lazing around not learning anything, not accomplishing anything, not seeing anything new." To me, that's a noble conceit whether you live in Paris, France; Paris, Texas; or no Paris at all.

When The Dud Avocado was first published, it was a smash. Ernest Hemingway told Dundy: "I liked your book. I liked the way your characters all speak differently ... My characters all sound the same because I never listen." Groucho Marx sent her a letter: "I had to tell someone (and it might as well be you since you're the author) how much I enjoyed The Dud Avocado," he wrote. "If this was actually your life, I don't see how the hell you ever got through it."

When people asked Dundy how autobiographical the book was, she'd say, "all the impulsive, outrageous things my heroine does, I did. All the sensible things she did, I made up."

This novel is a candid portrait of a free-spirited life. Whether you're a Francophile with a Serge Gainsbourg tattoo, or someone who prefers their steak frites with freedom fries, I bet The Dud Avocado will be your next favorite read.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Rose Friedman with production assistance from Andrew Otis.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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