Way back in 1958, long before Sex in the City, Elaine Dundy crafted a novel of a 21 year old woman's year abroad that perfectly captures the disorientation inherent in that neverending task of discovering oneself. (Fair warning: there are spoilers all through this, and if you don't want to know the ending, skip the marked sections below). This is a young adult story, not in the sense of "teenaged," but in the sense of early 20s self-discovery, the post-college years when anything seems possible but odds against the great stuff seem insurmountable. The protagonist, Sally Jay Gorce, has been funded by her Uncle Roger to spend a full 2 years abroad. Sally Jay (henceforth S.J.) is by turns profound and flippant, with the flippant winning out more often than not because of the dizzying speed with which she changes her mind. But that's the fun of this book, the sense of life and adventure that she narrates, sometimes by incisive observation and other times by barely noticing something before her extremely short attention span is diverted to new things. Her flip observations can be hillarious, as when she falls in with "a rowdy bunch" at a left band cafe in Paris who were "so violently individual as to be practically interchangeable." (p. 31)
In fact, the only people who stand out in her narrative are her current or potential lovers. First comes Teddy a wealthy older diplomat who, in the end, wants her for money. When he reveals this, she laughs and thanks him for "restoring my cynicism. I was too young to lose it." (p. 54) Teddy does not give up so easily, and in fact sets up a humiliating dinner party for S.J. that sparks her to an unexpected (even to her) moral outrage: "The vehemence of my moral indignation surprised me. Was I beginning to have standards and principles and, oh dear, scruples? What were they, and what would I do with them, and how much were they going to get in the way?" (p. 80) In another surprising moment of self-reflection (surprising because, although she talks about herself constantly, she rarely seems to see herself), S.J. describes her moods as "midnight black, excited, and deeply dreading" or "beautiful midnight-blue ones, calm but deeply excited," and it's no accident that the common thread there is "excited."
Comparisons to Catcher in the Rye are apt, but there are real difference between S. J. and Holden, and I can't help but wonder if this has to do with gender. Holden's fears of being "phony" are paralleled by S.J.'s deepest fear: becoming a spinster librarian. (I know! Cracked me up to no end!)
"I'm so tired. What happens when your curiosity just suddenly gives out? When the will and the energy snap and it all seems so once-over-again? [...] Then, from outer space, that librarian who is going to be me, who is me, that dreaded librarian from outer space who is always waiting for me, always ready to pounce, is going to take over. And I'll be cooked. If I don't stop it." (p. 199)
(This makes me want t-shirts printed with "That Dreaded Librarian from Outer Space.")
While Holden Caufield's destiny remains ambiguous in the end, S. J. is trounced a bit for her adventures, and her attitudes become more sober. She overhears a conversation between two girls in a washroom, and her response reveals a whole new attitude toward the sexual revelry she earlier celebrated:
"'You gonna let him take you home? He's an awful wolf, you know.'
'Sure,' shrugged the other. 'I should say no to life?'
Yeh yeh, I thought. Great, oh great. Zop zop and all dot. De Village don't say no to life; jazz don't say no to life. But dis baby do. Right now. Cause it hurts too much. And I can't take it no more." (p. 249)
So, while Holden may be ever so slightly morally reformed or at least a bit less cynical, our heroine is more beaten into submission. Her friend Larry turns out to be a pimp who stole her passport, and possibly a murderer (though it's hard to tell if this last character flaw is real or a product of S.J.'s rather vivid imagination). Yet there is a happy, if awfully quick and convenient, ending. Famous photographer, Max, who had photographed S.J. in Paris, runs into her in New York, after she has beaten a hasty retreat from the Continent. He loves her, she lets him love her, and when she wakes up at his place, she finds that the bed is in the library, recasting her fears as premonitions. He proposes within days, and she accepts immediately. In the end, they are off to Japan together. Before leaving Paris, S.J. discovers that everyone in her former set has been getting married, taking out large swaths of the rowdy Left Bank crowd. A hasty marriage is not deeply sober behavior, and it would be the expected ending for a character of this time period (and there are numerous possible objections to that, of course). Nevertheless, as a reader I found it to be a satisfying ending for a heroine who was, if not actually likable, very entertaining to follow.
I wish this novel had received some of the same acclaim as Salinger's, and, again, find myself wondering about how much the then-shocking sexual behavior of a 21-year-old woman at loose ends in Paris has to do with its relatively obscure status.