In the rainswept summer of 1968, Rose sets off for the United States from Kentish Town to meet a man she knows as Washington Harold, in her suitcase a polka-dot dress and a one-way ticket. In a country rocked by the assassination of Martin Luther King and a rising groundswell of violence, they are to join forces in search of the charismatic and elusive Dr Wheeler - oracle, guru and redeemer - whom Rose credits with rescuing her from a terrible childhood, and against whom Harold nurses a silent grudge. As they trail their quarry, zigzagging through America in a camper van, the odd couple - Rose, damaged child of grey postwar Britain, and nervous, obsessive, driven Harold - encounter a ragged counter-cultural army of Wheeler's acolytes, eddying among dangerous currents of obscure dissent and rage. But somewhere in the wide American darkness, Dr Wheeler is waiting.
Dame Beryl Margaret Bainbridge DBE was an English writer from Liverpool. She was primarily known for her works of psychological fiction, often set among the English working classes. Bainbridge won the Whitbread Award twice and was nominated for the Booker Prize five times. In 2008, The Times newspaper named Bainbridge among their list of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945".
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."
Everything about this book was just ok. I feel that if that either one of the main characters were more likable, it would have help the book and flow tremendously. Washington Harold is a cranky, complaining man who thinks of himself as a protector, but his actions show that he is not. Rose is annoying and seems like an immature teenager in an adult's body. Their only connection is they both know a man named Wheeler and they go on a road trip to find him.
Beryl Bainbridge passed away before this book was complete. It is based on a true story the night of Robert Kennedy's murder. A woman in a polka dotted dress accompanied by two men was heard shouting that they had killed him (Robert Kennedy.) Despite several people observing the woman, she was never located. The book makes an unexpected connection with the event, but ends, just as history, with no closure. Rose and Harold, the two main characters in the book are seeking a Mr. Wheeler who is traveling with Robert Kennedy on his presidential campaign. Both want to locate him for completely different reasons, which frustratingly are never clarified either because the author wanted the story to be foggy or it was never concluded because of her death. The book is a short, easy read with most of the characters exiting leaving me with a repulsed feeling as if I had shook hands with someone who had just dug a huge greenie from his nose. Rose is the most sympathetic of the characters. Living in London, with its' lack of space, shortage of bathrooms and most likely rationing of toothpaste and deodarent after WW2 and the effect it has on fastidiousness, it is easy to emphasize with Rose's confusion with Harold's nagging at her to perform some routine personal maintenance. It is 1968 and she and Harold are traveling together in a camper to find the elusive Mr. Wheeler. Perhaps this won't be the last book I read by Bainbridge. Her books are quite popular in the UK. While her characters are as earthy and real as Martina Cole's it was hard for me to feel any affection for them. In the end I didn't care what happened to any of them.
Quite a short book and the author died before finishing it sadly. To be honest, I appreciated the writing style and thought rose was an interesting character, but found it all a bit disjointed, dreamy and confusing. Shame!
Impelling from the first page till the last one. Even though Bainbridge didn’t get to polish up the ending, which may appear elusive, I loved the book, spanning from a family drama, personal tragedy, psychological novel, detective story, social and political chronicle, thus proving what a genius Bainbridge was. The way she mixed the history with fiction is superb. Her flawed characters, delicately and beautifully depicted are at the same time raw, sensitive, tragical and funny, that you can’t help loving them in all their ridiculous sadness. Her style, with meticulously interwoven flashbacks, innuendos and recollections, is majestic. Maybe the book didn’t give all the answers, and maybe it wasn’t because the author died - maybe she intentionally wanted to leave it so mysteriously unanswered, because one thing is sure - it has left me thinking.
I picked up this novel for its cover appeal. The book is set in 1968 and Rose has travelled from England to Baltimore to meet up with an American man she met briefly in England, Harold. Harold wants desperately to find Dr. Wheeler, a man he blames for certain events that affected him. Rose knew Dr. Wheeler years before when she was a child and teen and wants to see him again for her own reasons. She isn't aware of Harold's motives. Dr. Wheeler is always a step ahead of the two and they soon realize that he is travelling along with Robert Kennedy in his run for president. The two drive across the country, following the trail, and meeting others that know Dr. Wheeler, have some association with Harold, need assistance from the pair, or offer them assistance in their quest. Rose is an odd woman with her own secrets, and both she and Harold are using each other in their own way. I didn't really warm up to any of the characters in the novel and that lessened my enjoyment of the novel. Their travels take them to Washington, D.C., upstate New York, Chicago, and Yellowstone Park before their reach San Francisco. The ending is not what I expected, but also not that surprising given the oddness of this novel and its characters.
This novel, published posthumously, was unfinished when the author died but it doesn't feel that way too much. The plot was a little confusing but most questions were eventually answered, so I don't know what Bainbridge might have changed were she to have lived to complete the book. She uses some of the actual events of the 1960's to augment this story and this tool works but her fictional characters are too quirky-for-quirky's sake, which downgraded my rating. Apparently there was an actual news report that a girl in a polka dot dress was seen leaving the Ambassador Hotel yelling, "We shot him!" and the final third to quarter of the book set that up nicely. I wonder if the book had been finished, would my concerns have been addressed? No one can know but I plan to try another of Bainbridge's books, just to see what her finished novels are like.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
The last, unfinished novel by Beryl Bainbridge. I haven't read her work before, and I don't know much about the incident this story is (loosely) based on - the RFK assassination - but something about it intrigued me, and I'm glad it did. Her writing is simply astonishing, visionary - a road trip across America in 1968 with an enigmatic heroine, and many unforgettable characters. Apparently Bainbridge had struggled with this book for years as her health declined, but you wouldn't guess it. It was frustrating that we didn't get to read it all - I would say there was roughly a quarter to a third left - but it ends on a dramatic note, leaving you to guess what might have happened next.
Really enjoyed it, though the characters themselves are not very likeable. I found the setting of 1960s America after the assassination of Martin Luther King particularly interesting, though I would have liked this to have a bigger influence within the book. After an initially uncertain start I found myself wishing it wasn't unfinished as I'd have liked to know exactly how true events and the fictional side connect. There was a sense of something unfolding, especially due to the mysterious significance of 'the girl in the polka-dot dress' during Bobby Kennedy's assassination. Would give 7/10
Rose sets of from Kentish Town with a one way ticket to America. She meets up with Washington Harold and they travel across America in a camper van in search of the elusive Dr Wheeler who always seems to be one step ahead. It reaches it's dramatic climax on a hot day in June in the Ambassador hotel. A very dark story with very strange characters. Beryl Bainbridge died before finishing this novel which is such a shame. Another great author lost.
This is about the 4th bainbridge book I've read and despite the unfinished ending due to her recent death, I've loved this book from its enigmatic beginning to the macabre-hinted end. Her writing is pure artistry with characters drawn with deserved complexity.. She is one of the finest writers, next to Penelope Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Taylor, and Elizabeth Bowen, but darker in tone..
The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress was Beryl Bainbridge's final novel, and be warned that she didn't get to finish it before she died.
She was close though, and there are plenty of her characteristic qualities on show.
One is her ability to confound, confuse and disorientate.
From the off, it's a difficult to get a handle on exactly what's playing out. Our two main protagonists are Rose, a dental assistant from England coming to the end of her 20s, and Harold, her bearded, middle-aged guide for a road trip across America.
There is no apparent romantic link, and their quest is an odd one. A search for Dr Fred Wheeler, an enigmatic figure who appears to have left a profound impression on Rose during her troubled formative years.
It then becomes clear that Harold has a mission of his own too - and a considerably darker one.
This is a very odd couple then, and there is much humour in the clashes of personality and culture. There is a dream-like (or possibly nightmarish) quality to their progress across the States.
All this is also taking place in the build-up to the 1968 Presidential election, and in particular in the weeks just before Bobby Kennedy's assassination.
As with most of Bainbridge's novels, there is a scabrous wit on show, and wonderful characterisation of both Rose and Harold, as well as the eccentric cast of minor players who cross their path.
Their eventual destination is the Ambassadors Hotel in San Francisco - the venue for the coming Kennedy assassination.
But it looks like time ran out for Bainbridge before she could conclude the journey and make the connections between the fictional and factual.
So instead The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress ends with a contemporary newspaper cutting about the assassination which raises intriguing possibilities of what we might have discovered if she had been able to finish the novel.
Bainbridge's brevity and inconclusive endings might have left a few readers wanting more in their time, but on this occasion there does seem to be something missing.
This is still though a wonderful final testament to the skills of a formidable talent.
This past summer I read my first book by Beryl Bainbridge and liked it. I love the title and cover of this one, her last, published posthumously in 2011, but couldn’t quite make head nor tail of this odd shaggy dog road story set in 1968.
Rose, a young British woman, though chronologically older than she given credit for by the many male characters in the tale, has come to America to find an influential, but mysterious man. All the central men are mysterious, mysterious and quite ordinary men. They could be a bunch of salesmen of limited substance but moderate financial success or operatives for some government or extra-government agency. Washington Harold has agreed to help Rose find her Dr. Wheeler and the result is a road trip that begins in D.C. and ends in the Ambassador Hotel on the night Robert Kennedy is killed by Sirhan Sirhan. Harold’s motives are mixed. He is apparently seeking Dr. Wheeler, a one-time friend, a womanizer, because he got involved with Harold’s wife who later committed suicide.
Harold and Rose are uncomfortable travel companions—each finds the other’s habits peculiar and off-putting. Both are reluctant to share personal information—given their cross-purposes you can see why Harold is withholding. Because it’s the 60s, Harold feels he might be entitled to sleep with Rose and Rose assumes that might be an expectation of Harold’s.
The novel’s plot has some inspiration in history. After the Kennedy assassination there was one witness who described two people fleeing, one shouting that they just killed Kennedy. One was a young woman in a polka-dot dress. One of the minor characters in the story is a man who has a thoroughbred horse racing ranch where a young man named Sirhan works and gets to know Rose a little. Perhaps that explains the “we” in the we killed him. Sirhan Sirhan, however, was wrestled to the ground at the scene by Rafer Johnson, Rosey Grier and others in Kennedy’s entourage. The chase of Dr. Wheeler, who reportedly works for the Kennedy campaign, and the candidate’s assassination have great imaginative possibilities but it never came together for me. The characters are too thinly drawn. Some parts of the plot are unconvincing. Why does Harold need Rose for his pursuit of Wheeler? Why does Rose want to see Wheeler in the first place? In any event, Bainbridge has more novels, including ones included in polls of the 20th Century’s best novels so I will keep reading her even though this one was a miss for me.
Just as The Spectator states on the cover of this book, this story is gripping, funny, and "deeply mysterious." It's decidedly dark humor, a 30-year-old English woman (who behaves quite childishly much of the time), Rose, flies to America, her trip funded by Washington Harold, an American she and friends met during an earlier trip he made to England. Turns out they both know the mysterious "Dr. Wheeler," and want to reconnect with him for two very different reasons. Coincidence?....
It's 1968, and America's still reeling from JFK's death, the Vietnam war, and Martin Luther King's death. Bainbridge paints a disturbing nightmarish America as this odd couple travel cross country towards their individual destinies in LA (The Ambassador Hotel, to be precise). Both Rose and Harold survived painful childhoods, though we only get bits and pieces of their stories. Harold, politically astute, is stunned by Rose's lack of knowledge about...well, anything, politics included, he believes. She makes non-PC comments concerning race and Kennedy (Robert & Jack); Harold lets slip to an old friend (all of whom seem to have some connection with Dr. Wheeler, who's apparently working on Bobby Kennedy's campaign; just gets stranger, I know) that he fancied his mother. Out of nowhere we're confronted with unsavory aspects of these two, who barely tolerate each other.
I read that Bainbridge died before completing this novel, but I was satisfied with the startling, somewhat ambiguous ending. I couldn't put down this book, and I'm reading The Snow Child, too! For a while you won't know what the hell's going on, but stick with it, if only to follow this bizarre, at times violent, sinister, puzzling cross-country trek, while attempting to figure out these two compelling, shady characters.
«Una de las mejores novelas de Bainbridge.» The Independent
«Lo que diferencia las novelas de Bainbridge del resto es su sentido de lo absurdo, lo perverso y lo inexplicable.» The New York Times
«La novela funciona como El extranjero de Camus o Esperando a Godot de Beckett. Las preguntas sin respuesta la hacen todavía más misteriosa y refuerzan su extraño poder.» William Boyd
«Un libro magnífico, muy gracioso y a la vez profundamente inquietante. Se trata de la más hábil y oblicua de las comedias negras.» A. N. Wilson
«Es difícil pensar en una escritora que comprenda mejor el corazón humano que Beryl Bainbridge.» The Times
En el lluvioso verano de 1968, Rose viaja desde Londres a Estados Unidos para reunirse con un hombre que conoce como Washington Harold. En su maleta lleva un vestido de topos y un billete sólo de ida. En un país conmocionado por el asesinato de Martin Luther King y en el que la violencia amenaza con desencadenarse de nuevo, ambos unirán fuerzas para encontrar al carismático y elusivo doctor Wheeler —oráculo, gurú y redentor— a quien Rose adora por haberla rescatado de una infancia terrible y contra quien Harold alberga un silencioso rencor. Rose y Harold cruzan el continente en una furgoneta Volkswagen desde Baltimore hasta California, siempre un paso por detrás de Wheeler. Su búsqueda les llevará al hotel Ambassador de Los Ángeles, donde Bobby Kennedy está a punto de pronunciar el último discurso de su vida.
¿Qué misterioso papel tendrá en la tragedia que está a punto de desencadenarse en el Ambassador la chica del vestido de topos?
I have always enjoyed reading the novels of Beryl Bainbridge. Whether writing about passengers on the Titanic or explorers in the Artic or actors in a British theatre company she explored the dark pathways that fragile humans find themseleves on as they try and live their lives. Bainbridge has a dark ferocious wit and her novels are not for the faint of heart. The Girl with the Polka Dot Dress is her last work and my Kindle version does not contain a coda described in some reviews I read linking the girl Rose to a woman apparently present at the assasination of Robert F Kennedy.
The work does not have an unfinished quality to me. It describes a crosscountry trip that Rose and an American Washington Harold take as they search for the mysterious Dr.Wheeler across 1968 America. The people and things they encounter are a wierd amalgam of America as seen through the eyes of David Lynch, Don DeLillo and Huckleberry Finn. There is an air of menace and death in the air and and the reader recognizes that Harold and Rose are moving inexorably to Los Angeles and the death of RFK.
This is not the best book I have read by Beryl Bainbridge but it made me realize how much I enjoyed her work . I am sorry that she will write no additional novels but I am also glad that I have more of her work to read
This book was typical of that dreadful feeling you get when you read and throughly enjoy a book then find that the last few pages are missing, or you leave the book somewhere just as you get to the end! It was a great read! Brilliant characters, all rather unnerving and not exactly likeable, but worth getting to know. A journey you just know is going to come to some shocking denouement and you can't wait to get there but don't really want the journey to come to and end as the events that occur on the way are thrilling, leaving you wanting more! But then you finally arrive at the story's destination, and BOOM! nothing happens!! Harold and Rose travel across America together to meet this elusive character they both know but through very different reasons. You don't really get to know much about him, yet you are looking forward to meeting him, but he doesn't materialise! You are left wondering what part did Rose play in the story? She didn't need to be in it! How does it really end? I don't know! It may make some sense if you know anything about conspiracy stories around the assassination of Robert Kennedy but I wasn't aware of any links between that event and a girl in a polka dot dress so I had to do some research! This was a wonderfully written book with some great characterisation but the worst ending I have ever read! I was so disappointed!
Superb in terms of setting and characters, especially since Bainbridge was working from memory in England nearly 50 years after Robert Kennedy's assassination. The RFK angle doesn't really come into play until near the end of the book, leaving me wondering if the author herself would've continued to struggle with fitting that in specifically had she lived a bit longer? Being familiar with the theories regarding the event, I was thrown a bit as West gives the girl a rather heavy English accent, and the witnesses who heard her at the time report nothing about that, though the story of her involvement "works" anyway. I would recommend tackling Bainbridge's novella Injury Time first, as it's more ... approachable - this one is bit Murakami-esque in terms of plotting. Definitely go for the audio on both as West does a bang-up job for each title!
This was Beryl Bainbridge's last, and unfinished, book so it's even more enigmatic than the rest of her novels. Part of her charm as a writer is treating the reader like an adult and not hitting us over the head with significant plot points we need to remember for later. Subtlety is the order of the day - in some cases so much subtlety that you have to go back to find some of the missing information.
All the above is true of her finished work and it's even more true of this book. As we never got to see the book as she wanted it to be we're left adrift with all the set-ups for a rounded work, but without being able to see how it actually ends. What we do have is very involving so it's incredibly frustrating not to find out how it all should end.
Despite that it's still worth reading as, in a way, it's a gathering of the author's greatest hits with themes from past books being revisited.
1934-2010 Good review in London RoB 14 July 2011 by Andrew O'Hagan. The Dressmaker 1973 is autobiographical. The Bottle Factory Outing 1974 has characters with jobs the author had had [want more from life than small waes and heavy gropes] An Awfully Big Adventure - Stella's starlust ad attempt to rip herself from working-class strictures, 1950s Liverpool.
"going in search of her many possible selves" she turned to historical novels: According To Queeney [observing Samuel Johnson] The Birthday Boys [Scott's Antarctic expedition] "On a good day, a novelist will find little parts of himself everywhere in history." The Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress was lying unfinished on her desk at her death. Protagonist a girl from Kentish Town in 1968, arriving in America and accidentally being around when MLK was assassinated & other world events.
After my first taste of Beryl Bainbridge's writing, I must admit she seems to be an acquired taste. The best I can do is to liken this posthumous, unfinished novel to a Coen brothers' movie. It is filled with weird characters and situations, unanswered questions and mysterious happenings. However, the action revolves around historical events and related persons. Oddly enough, the fact that the novel has no traditional ending seems to fit extremely well and that is the part that I found most attractive. My true rating, which isn't accurately reflected by two stars, is between "it was OK and liked it." As weird as it seems, I feel compelled to sample another taste of Bainbridge's writing, however.
Curious, dusty old “New Wave” style novel, published posthumously and completed by the editor based on the author's notes.
Rose is an English woman of no particular distinction, either in background, intelligence or morality, who travels to USA to meet a psychologist she knew as a child for reasons not really specified in the novel. She gets a ticket from Harold, a nondescript man of indeterminate age and of apparently independent, but still nonetheless meagre, means. His reasons for wanting to meet this Dr Wheeler are revealed.
They meet a few of his successful friends along the way and are involved in a bank heist, but this affects neither particularly. The action occurs during the Watts riots and after the JFK assassination and during the 1968 presidential campaign.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
This is the only book that I've ever read because of a popular song: Mark Knopfler released a song tribute to Beryl Bainbridge in March, 2015.
The main character in this book, Rose, seems like the female character in another Knopfler song, "Donkey Town," maladjusted but with redeeming qualities.
Unfortunately, this was the last of Bainbridge's novels and was unfinished -- though before she died of cancer, she left instructions for her editor on publishing it. The reader is left with a good story but one which you're not quite certain is finished. Who was the mysterious Dr. Wheeler after all? Read the novel and perhaps you'll figure it out, as Bainbridge is masterful at dropping pieces of the story in every chapter.
Maybe I am too young to appreciate the historical fiction aspect of this novel? I did grasp all the insight to the characters met along the way, such as The Kennedys, Martin Luther King, etc., not to mention the real-life events. I am sure Bainbridge portrayed the tension that must have been in the air during this time well, but I had a difficult time following most of the story. It did not seem to have a solid foundation from the very beginning. It centers around this elusive Doctor Wheeler, but characters seem to weave in and out of the story line, without much introduction, nor departure. The ending felt very open-ended, unresolved, and not in a mysterious, leave-it-to-the-reader way.
Picked this up on a whim, unfamiliar with Beryl Bainbridge, not knowing this was a creative exercise based on Bobby Kennedy's assassination, and also not knowing that Bainbridge died before she was actually able to finish the book. Realizing all that after the fact, this odd little novel made a lot more sense (not to suggest that it wholly makes sense even so). It offers a strange, dark road trip for a young British girl and a cranky older fella, in joint pursuit of one Dr. Wheeler for very individual reasons. I'm curious enough to read others of her works, though it's definitely a bummer she wasn't able to finish this one.
It's ok. I really liked the writing style, one gets to take turns and see the internal thoughts that go on in the minds of the two main characters, (very William Falkner) but it somehow felt like a jip at the end. I understand how the writer is weaving life and facts and building up to a crescendo that is a potential (fictional) explanation of something that really happened. But it had to be done by printing a news article at the end of the book. It's like a joke thats not all that clear, so it has to be explained at the end. The joke falls flat and so does to some extend, this book.