on 26 May 2011
The Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress is undoubtedly vintage Beryl Bainbridge. The story follows Rose and a man known as Washington Harold across America at a time of political turmoil. An odd couple, to say the least, Rose and Harold are drawn together in pursuit of the enigmatic Dr Wheeler; to Rose, he is a saviour figure who, it seems, saved her from her distinctly unpromising early years; for Harold, there is an altogether more sinister aim in finding Wheeler, involving his deceased wife and the possession of a gun. Rose is a classic Bainbridge heroine, harking back to the author's semi-autobiographical early novels. She can be naive yet gauche, full of wisdom yet unutterably bewildered by the simplest things and recounts half-told tales of a violent childhood, sexual misedemeanours and odd encounters that intrigue, baffle and ultimately infuriate her travelling companion. They travel uncomfortably across America, a seemingly odd choice of setting for Bainbridge, but their journey is packed with incident and populated by memorable characters along the way as the increasngly desperate Rose and Harold close in on Wheeler in Los Angeles.
The ending may not be completely finished as the author would have intended, but this does not matter. Bainbridge specialised in ambiguities and, of course, many of her novels told stories where the ending was already known, as, indeeed, does this. What you are left with is a beautifully written but utterly idiosyncratic novel that reminds you how much Beryl Bainbridge will be missed.
When she died in July, 2010, Beryl Bainbridge, Dame Commander of the British Empire, had been working for the preceding six months on this novel, The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress. Nearly completed at the time of her death, this novel is her twentieth, including five which were nominated for the Booker Prize and two (Injury Time in 1977 and Every Man for Himself in 1996) which won Whitbread Awards. Despite the literary honors, Bainbridge has always been a remarkably accessible author with a mordant wit, a sense of the absurdity of life, a darkly comic approach to her offbeat characters, and an undercurrent of violence which springs to life in unexpected ways.
Set in June, 1968, just before the death of Robert F. Kennedy, this novel opens with Harold Grasse greeting Rose, whom he regards as "Wheeler's woman," at the airport in Baltimore. Rose has come to the United States from Scotland to try to reconnect with "Dr. Wheeler," who played an important role in helping her to deal with her miserable childhood. The mysterious Dr. Wheeler is working on the campaign of Robert F. Kennedy for President, and he is traveling the country, so Harold Grasse has been assigned the task of greeting Rose. Unbeknownst to Rose or some of the other characters, all of whom also seem to know Wheeler, Harold has his own reasons for wanting to find Wheeler.
With the point of view alternating between Rose and Harold, who have nothing in common except their interest in Wheeler, the author shows their complete lack of connection on all levels. Rose is "slack," a young woman who does not bathe or wash her hair often enough to suit the fastidious Harold, a woman with little education and even less intellectual curiosity. She sometimes makes racially insensitive remarks and shows little understanding of the political scene (including the Vietnam War, the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, and the death of John F. Kenndy). Starting on the East Coast, the two travel by camper to the West Coast to try to catch up with Dr. Wheeler.
The reader learns much about Rose through her internal monologues which often run parallel to important conversations by other characters, her subject matter decidedly personal and often involving examples of her abuse by her family, while the other characters are discussing major events, such as insights into the death of Martin Luther King. For years Rose has sought religious explanations for the accidents of history, hoping for full answers which require little thought. Originally a Protestant, she became a Catholic convert as a teenager, then gave that up. She and Harold talk with a rural monsignor on his way to the funeral of a soldier killed in Vietnam, befriend a lawyer who has just had a mystical experience in which he faced the Judgment Seat, and attend a séance with a woman who is a theosophist. A woman near Santa Ana has found her "calling" in nature: "[Their hostess] cooked them lunch, the ingredients home-grown, even the chicken. The birds, she trumpeted, were her pride and joy, and she never allowed anyone but herself to wring their necks."
Sudden death and violence among the people Rose, Harold, and their acquaintances meet is common. Several characters have near death experiences, and a couple of bodies materialize during their trip. Filled with darkness, the novel is still strangely humorous, and the characters are constant sources of surprise. Though the ending does not feel quite finished and the thematic development is still a bit loose, the book is a wonderful finale to Bainbridge's great writing career. Mary Whipple
on 15 January 2015
It is difficult to judge this book as the author died before completing the ending. So the ending was quite flat leaving the reader frustrated. In some ways the indeterminate ending is appropriate for this rather bizarre book and the newspaper report at the end only adds to the general confusion. Perhaps that is what happens after a shattering event.
Like other reviewers I did not entirely take to the central characters Rose and Harold, although the shambolic Rose elicits sympathy.
But the book has a strange magnetic quality as the two totally different protagonists journey across America. They are both in search of the elusive Dr Wheeler for reasons not totally explained and their coming together is slightly unconvincing. However I found the book strong on conveying the atmosphere of sixties America with the background of race riots and the Vietnam war. It was also good at describing the seedy motels and the odd bohemian characters that Harold and Rose encounter.
Having read some of the author's other books which were brilliant, this book comes as something of a disappointment. Yet if not judged by that high standard it is still a considerable achievement from a writer right at the end of her creative life.
It's 1968 and Rose and Harold are on a road trip across the States in search of the elusive Dr Wheeler, who has been both a friend of Harold's and a father figure for Rose back in England. "The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress" focuses on the relationship between these two characters, the humour of their interactions, but also the tension between them which becomes increasingly more disturbing as Harold's exasperation with his unwanted travelling companion grows.
It is the character of Rose which makes this novel so compelling: uneducated, childlike, and with a traumatic past, she has an effect (for good or for bad) on everyone she meets, somehow managing to be present at any number of dramatic, even history-defining, events. Rose is a destabilizing presence, for example when her ingenuous (or disingenuous?) comments derail conversations between Harold and his liberal friends, and the reader is never quite sure what she will do next.
I was apprehensive about this book as Beryl Bainbridge died during its writing, leaving it unfinished. However, although I would love to know what Bainbridge would have done with the novel had she lived, this is still an enjoyable, well-written, and haunting book in its own right. I closed the book feeling sad that this is the last work from such a talented and distinctive writer.
on 22 October 2013
As I fan of Bainbridges work I am really disappointed that this novel has been allowed to be published. I can only assume that it is the publishers or agents attempt at some sort of tribute (although the more cynical may say cash in). It reads more like a draft than a finished novel, for me there are too many unresolved threads. Why is Rose making this epic journey, why does she need to see Wheeler so badly. Why does George not seek out Wheeler alone, he is a loner by nature and dislikes Rose from the outset. Why does George detour to so many characters homes without any proper reason. The ending, although sort of unresolved, almost works despite the authors death resulting in the obvious truncated finish.
I feel this one should have been shelved or given to someone to finish properly.
Those of you who have given poor reviews please don't give up on Beryl. Give "Everyman for himself" "the bottle factory outing" or young adolf" a go.
The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress was the book that Beryl Bainbridge was in the process of writing at the time of her death in July 2010. Published posthumously, without any additional material added, the novel does seem to be largely complete, even if it ends somewhat abruptly and does have something of an unfinished feel to it. There are however a number of elements in the book and some intriguing characterisation that do come together to certainly warrant the publication of the author's final work.
Although not approached directly, the question of parental neglect, abuse and childhood suffering comes up a lot in The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, particularly in relation to the consequences it has on people in later life. It's certainly features in the past of the two main characters, an American known as Washington Harold and a thirty-year old English woman called Rose, an unlikely couple who team-up together for a trip across the USA - from Baltimore to Chicago and ultimately down to Los Angeles - on the trail of the elusive Dr. Wheeler, a man who features significantly in both their pasts.
What is intriguing about the trip across the USA is that it is set in the summer of 1968, during a significant period in American history. The assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King are still fresh in the mind of a nation that is torn between the past and an uncertain modern world, with firmly held beliefs and strong divisions among them. As Rose and Harold make their road trip across the country, the nature of this uncertainty is reflected in the nature of the people they encounter and in a series of strange violent events that they find themselves witness to and caught up in. Moving towards personal goals of their own, impelled by events in their own pasts, one inevitably wonders about the events and the "childhood" trauma that has placed America in such a volatile position.
Inspired by a real-life incident that only really becomes clear by the time you get to come towards the end of the book (for which reason I won't mention it here), the implications are all there, if frustratingly not fully explored in the unfinished work. There is enough here however for the reader to draw their own conclusions and speculate on how the book might have been completed (there is little to indicate what stage of the writing of the book was at, but it seems to me to be about a 100 pages short). None of this however takes away from the intriguing story that Bainbridge has detailed and seen nearly through to its conclusion, but perhaps just gives it an even more mysterious and ambiguous edge.
on 5 October 2014
The reviews show disappointment in the book being unfinished. Apparently just before she died she was very anxious to finish the book and0she begged the hospital staff to give her 30 more days to live in order to finish it. So she did try!
There is a northerness to Bainbridge's writing which I love. Even though this is unfinished it is still alot greater than some of the 'great' new novels that are touted at the moment.
Rose has travelled to America to meet up with Washington Henry to find the mysterious Mr Wheeler. Their journey takes them across America to Los Angeles and the democratic convention at The Ambassador Hotel. This strange, uncomfortable pairing stay together so that they can achieve the agendas they need to accomplish. Bainbridge has managed to produce a novel whose scope covers a period in American history in which there was massive change afooot, but she still keeps it very real, with beautiful touches of wit and humour to boot. That's all I'm saying as I don't want to spoil it for anyone, read on if you want to experience her last novel
on 8 November 2015
I chose this for my bookclub having and having never read bainbridge previously I was full of anticipation of a good read. How wrong I was. This book has some interesting characters but the plot is disjointed and ultimately completely unfulfilling. Maybe I will try another of her work, but at the moment I think I may give her a miss.
Beryl Bainbridge has been one of my favourite authors for many years, so it was with some sadness that I read this, her last work. Although not completely finished, it just shows how brilliant an author she was, to create something so wonderful even when she was so ill.
When the book begins, Rose has just arrived in the US from England. She meets Washington Harold, a man she does not know well, but with whom she has a common interest. They are both searching for Dr Wheeler, although for very different reasons, which are difficult to explain without giving away the plot. Suffice it to say that Harold needs Rose, but they make an uncomfortable pair. Rose thinks Harold, "a soul immersed in darkness" and Harold finds Rose immature, annoying and unhygienic. Their misunderstanding intensifies as they drive from place to place, chasing the elusive Dr Wheeler, who is on the Robert Kennedy campaign trail.
During their travels, Rose and Harold go through different stages in their relationship. They are both reliant on each other and yet distrustful; at times disgusted and filled with hate or annoyance, at other times they try to be kind or comforting. Rose keeps up a constant chatter about her past and her relationships with everyone. There are references to the assassination of Martin Luther King, race riots, the Kennedys and a whole array of people that Harold and Rose meet along the way. It sometimes seems that everyone knows what is going on, or who suspect Harold's motives, apart from Rose. The surreal encounters on the road trip leave Harold and Rose more and more at cross purposes.
If you have not read Bainbridge before, this may not be the best novel to begin with, simply because she was not able to finish it as she would have wished. However, even with that, it is an excellent read and the characters are brilliantly written.