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The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress (original 2011; edition 2011)

by Beryl Bainbridge

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956127,077 (3.1)30
Member:Mercury57
Title:The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress
Authors:Beryl Bainbridge
Info:Little, Brown & Company (2011), Hardcover, 208 pages
Collections:Read, Your library
Rating:***1/2
Tags:British authors

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The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress by Beryl Bainbridge (2011)

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The Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress by Beryl Bainbridge

This was my first attempt with Beryl Bainbridge's writing and I must admit she seems to me to be an acquired taste. This particular story is filled with weird characterization and situations, unanswered questions and bizaar happenings. However, the action revolves around historical events and related persons; ie the Kennedys and specifically the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.
Oddly enough, the fact that the novel has no traditional ending seems to fit extremely well with the book and that is the part that I was able to most identify with and appreciate. Even though this story confused me throughout most of it, I felt the need to finish the book. And strange as it may seem I also feel the need to try more of her work. Something about the way she writes draws me in but I found it to be off-putting as well so I really want to see how I am affected by other writings of Bainbridge. ( )
2 vote rainpebble | Sep 10, 2013 |
Like many other authors, Beryl Bainbridge drew on the experiences of her own life for the events, themes and settings of her novels. She once claimed she had never really written fiction because all her books were depictions of events that she herself had witnessed or experienced. For her, real life was more peculiar and riveting than anything she could have imagined or created. Though many of her later novels were in the historical fiction genre, she never completely abandoned the re-working of some incident from her past.

In Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, her eighteenth and final novel, she recreates a journey across America that she made in 1968. It was a turbulent period in American history: the country was at war with Vietnam, J F Kennedy had been assassinated and Martin Luther King murdered. Racial tension manifested itself in riots in many parts of the country.

It’s against this background that Bainbridge sends her two central characters on a quest across the country. Rose, a 30-year-old girl with an unhappy childhood, arrives in America in search of a man who befriended her many years ago but has since disappeared. Her host is Washington Harold, a bearded pedantic man in his fifties whom she barely knows. Harold also wants to find Wheeler. The two join forces to travel from Washington to Los Angeles, from Maryland to California, sleeping in a battered camper van or in the spare rooms of Harold’s odd assortment of acquaintances. But whenever they arrive, it’s to find that Wheeler has just left.

Quite who Wheeler is, remains unclear throughout the book though we get hints that he might be something in the secret service and is involved in Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign. Equally elliptical are the reasons why the two unlikely travelling companions seem so intent on tracking him down. The answers and the backgrounds of these individuals are disclosed in fragmentary fashion, almost as if they are dropped accidentally into the narrative. So subtle is this technique, that often the significance of what I’d just read only became apparent a few pages later. It’s an approach that is characteristic of Bainbridge’s style it seems. In an obituary written by Janet Watts at The Guardian, she comments that:

Beryl’s literary fiction can have a quality of a detective story: only when we reach a novel’s final denouement do we see that we were given the key to its coded mystery at the start.

Unfortunately the resolution never materialises in this novel because Bainbridge died before it was completed. She left detailed instructions for her friend and editor, Brendan King, on how to prepare the text for publication from her working manuscript, the concluding chapters were not fleshed out sufficiently for him to do more than give a summary type of ending. Which for me was such a let down because Bainbridge had created in Rose, one of those characters who stay in the memory and I wanted to follow her story through to more of an ending.

Rose is rather childlike; more interested in chewing her fingernails and smoking than the sights of America that flash by the windows of the camper van. When Harold repeatedly fails in his attempts to engage her interest, he concludes that she is ‘a retard’. For Rose, the country is simply ”a confusion of flyovers, underpasses, intersections, junctions, toll gates….. Sometimes there were fields full of cows, once a river, brown and swollen, once a town with a railway track running down the middle of its street.” Though the scenery is dull and she doesn’t comprehend most of what she hears, she feels at home amongst Harold’s group of beatnik, depressive friends. The novel’s final sentence is fittingly engimatic for this mercurial character : “A star of blood, delicate as a snowflake, melted upon her upper lip.” ( )
  Mercury57 | Nov 23, 2012 |
I felt little emotional connection with this, Beryl Bainbridge's last novel, and really was not that interested. ( )
  CarltonC | Jul 23, 2012 |
Wow, the first Europa I didn't like. I just couldn't connect with this story about two people on a road trip to California to find the mysterious Mr. Wheeler. Who are these people? Why are they making the trip? Bainbridge tells the story with less than the minimum exposition; you have to feel your way through. Their motivations and personalities are revealed slowly and somehow it all connects up with the RFK assassination, too. Weird. ( )
  bostonbibliophile | Feb 6, 2012 |
Beryl Bainbridge was famous for writing fiction strewn with mordant humor and this, her last (and unfinished) novel is no exception. The author was in the process of writing this book when she died of cancer in 2010 and the final book was brought to publication by her editor. This probably accounts for the somewhat abrupt end.

The Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress follows one of the oldest storytelling forms - the quest. Rose is a 20-something young woman who has arrived from England in search of the mysterious Dr. Wheeler, who she regards as the saviour who helped her survive her miserable childhood. She is met at the airport by Harold Grasse, who she calls Washington Harold, who is also in search of Wheeler for very different reasons.

Incompatible almost from the start, the two drive from Washington to Los Angeles in Harold's new used camper van encountering a cast of characters along the way including a racist preacher, a theosophist, a back to the earth mother and, apparently Sirhan Sirhan.

Bainbridge"s mordant humor gives the reader lots of laugh out loud moments but also covers more serious topics of love and death and abandonment> This is not an easy novel to read, but if the reader perseveres he or she will be greatly rewarded. ( )
  etxgardener | Oct 17, 2011 |
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Earlier that morning, on the eighteenth of May, Washington Harold had fled abreast of a mob hurling cans, sticks and stones at the windows lining the boulevard.
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"In the tumultuous spring of 1968 a young English woman, Rose, travels from London to the United States to meet a man she knows as Washington Harold. In her suitcase are a polka dot dress and a one-way ticket. In an America recently convulsed by the April assassination of Martin Luther King and subsequent urban riots, they begin a search for the charismatic and elusive Dr. Wheeler - sage, prophet and, possibly, redeemer - who rescued Rose from a dreadful childhood and against whom Harold holds a seething grudge. As they follow their quarry cross-country in a camper they encounter the odd remnants of Wheeler acolytes who harbor festering cultural and political grievances. Along the way, a famous artist is shot in New York, mutilated soldiers are evacuated from Vietnam, race hatred explodes in ghettos and suburbs and casual madness blossoms at revival meetings. Many believe America's only hope is presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, whose campaign trail echoes Rose and Harold's pilgrimage. Both will conclude in Los Angeles at the Ambassador Hotel one infamous night in June. Subversive, sinister and marvelously vivid, Beryl Bainbridge's great last novel evokes a nation on the brink of self-destruction with artful brilliance."-- Publisher's description.… (more)

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