Just before turning 13, Sally Jay Gorce ran away from school to become a bullfighter. The year before, she’d gone off and joined a jazz band. Having been brought home once again and properly scolded, she told her uncle that what she wanted was freedom to explore the world:
“It’s just that I know that the world is so wide and full and people and exciting things that I just go crazy every day stuck in these institutions. I mean if I don’t get started soon, how will I get to sharpen my wits? It takes lots of training. You have to start very young. I want them to be so sharp that I’m always able to guess right. Not be right–that’s much different–that means you’re going to do something about it. No. Just guessing. You know, more on the wing.”
Understanding her situation, Sally Jay’s uncle told her that if she would agree to finish college without running away again, he would finance her two years of freedom.
When Elaine Dundy’s 1958 novel opens, the adult Sally Jay is enjoying her freedom in Paris. We first meet her when she’s on her way to meet her older, married lover. On the boulevard St. Michel, she runs into an old friend from her days of doing Summer Stock in Maine. He’s a little rude and a little scornful, and Sally Jay knows it, but she finds herself attracted to him in spite of herself. Her married lover will have to go.
Over the course of the book, we see Sally making guess after guess about the people she meets. Sometimes she makes a good guess, and sometimes she doesn’t. Sometimes she acts on her good guesses, and sometimes she doesn’t. When she makes mistakes, they’re her mistakes, exercised in freedom and with little thought to long-term consequences, aside from her fear of becoming a librarian (the horror!)
Sally Jay is almost the complete opposite of me, but I liked her. I especially liked her self-aware and sometimes saucy voice. As she wanders through her Parisian life, always seeking out the best and most interesting crowd, finding pleasure, disappointment, and danger, she’s continually mulling over everyone’s actions, including her own. The adventure is an exercise in sharpening her wits about herself and everyone else. It’s not an easy process, and Sally Jay recognizes the challenge, but she doesn’t moon about over it. Instead, she peppers her narrative with lines like this:
I gave up wondering if anyone was ever going to understand me at all. If I was ever going to understand myself even. Why was it so difficult anyway? Was I some kind of a nut or something? Don’t answer that.
I liked Sally Jay’s voice, and I was intrigued by the interplay between the freedom she experiences as an independent woman in 1950s France and way her being a woman makes her vulnerable. As she notes early in the novel, “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.” I wouldn’t say this is a serious examination of the state of sexual freedom and misogyny in the mid-20th century, but the story does point toward some of the complexities of being a free and independent woman at that time.
Despite these generally positive points, my engagement in the story came and went as I read. Sally Jay’s adventures felt more exhausting than exciting a lot of the time. That’s probably sort of the point, but exhausting and tedious aren’t so very far apart, and sometimes my weariness of parties shifted over into boredom. And the ending was unconvincing. Each of Sally Jay’s adventures build on the ones before. But the ending hinges on a character who doesn’t even appear until nearly the end and doesn’t make much of an impression when he does. I would have liked more build-up and more time to get used to the new possibilities this character offers. As it was, the “resolution” seemed thrown in as a way to give Sally Jay closure without closing her off to new adventures.
So on balance, I enjoyed this, but it’s not among my favorites. It’s fun, with some serious undercurrents, but not the kind of book I’m likely to return to.