The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress by Beryl Bainbridge #ReadingBeryl23

Finally, a review for you. This is one of the few novels by Beryl that I hadn’t read.

Bainbridge’s eighteenth and final novel was left unfinished, but her great friend and colleague (and later biographer) Brendan King tidied it up from the notes she gave him. Like all of her later work, it was based on the grain of a true story – that of Senator Robert Kennedy’s murder, and the presence of a mysterious girl in a black and white polka dot dress, (I don’t believe it was ever proven who this apocryphal girl was, they say she may have hypnotised Sirhan Sirhan who fired the shots, but there are plenty of conspiracy theories, natch). It also returned to the autofiction that fuelled her earlier novels, which as her last novel feels particularly apt.

Beryl had a relationship with an American man she called ‘Washington Harold’, they had to separate when his return to the USA came due, but in spring 1968 he was planning to relocate from Washington to San Francisco and bought a camper van, and Beryl was going to come to the USA and do the road trip with him. Beryl kept a journal of her three weeks on the road, during which she recounted the Kennedy assassination, got mighty fed up of Harold in the camper’s cramped interior, and fell for his friend Don instead.

She used most of this in the novel, even calling the male protagonist Washington Harold. The main character is Rose, a young woman who sets off from Kentish Town to travel to Baltimore for a three week holiday with a polka dot dress in her suitcase. Harold, whom she met while he was in England, has sent her a one-way plane ticket. Rose, who is not Beryl, is young, damaged and rather detached from life; Harold is her opposite, twitchy and driven.

But what links this disparate pair? It’s the elusive Dr Wheeler, a man that helped Rose out of an awful childhood, whom she wants to meet with again, her guru. Meanwhile Harold has altogether darker reasons for wanting to catch up with him. The only problem is that Dr Wheeler is now part of Robert Kennedy’s campaign team and they’re on the move across America too, in fact it’ll be LA before they can be in the right place at the right time – and you can guess when and where that is…

As they follow the Kennedy campaign from state to state, sometimes they have to sleep together, but back to back for the most part, in the camper. Sometimes they rent a room in a motel to have a bath, although Rose’s personal hygiene habits can be lacking compared to Harold’s more prissy nature. Other times, they stay with acquaintances and contacts of Harold’s who sometimes have some challenging views – remember it’s 1968 and Martin Luther King Jr was murdered not long before the story started.

It’s hard to like either of her protagonists. Harold has murky ulterior motives, Rose is self-centred, often annoying, and generally detached from things that don’t interest her. When she is intrigued by something she lights up, as when she finds a firearm shop, and she compares being able to buy a gun to going to the greengrocer for carrots and turnips. Bainbridge deliberately keeps things rather foggy, we only get hints of both of their previous histories, a little more of Rose’s perhaps – who had had some bad experiences. King has left the ending deliberately murky which is quite thought-provoking in its way. The inclusion of a newspaper cutting from after the assassination at the end of the book detailing one witness’s testimony about the girl just added to my by now racing thoughts about the novel, and I was driven to explore those final events a little. It is, of course, only a ‘what if’ scenario.

The book’s vagueness, which I often don’t get on with (cf: Study for Obedience), was made compelling by the narrative drive (pun intended) of the road trip. Like Wily Coyote who never catches the Roadrunner, we wonder if they ever will catch up with Dr Wheeler, while simultaneously knowing that the novel requires some kind closure in this respect – or does it?

With relief, I ended up rather enjoying it. It has all of Bainbridge’s quirks and wit, comic situations while being very dark underneath, but suffused with that air of distance she often imbued her female protagonists with. I was left with many questions, wishing we’d got to find out more about Dr Wheeler. Above all though, having referred to Brendan King’s thick biography of Beryl, Love by All Sorts of Means, to find out more about Beryl’s road-trip, it has reminded me that I must read it properly!

I read the hardback which just creeps in at under 200 pages of text so it qualifies for #NovNov23 Novellas in November too, (although the paperback is listed at 227 pages).

Source: Own copy. Buy at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)

14 thoughts on “The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress by Beryl Bainbridge #ReadingBeryl23

  1. Carlton says:

    Glad that you enjoyed this, but I found myself too emotionally uninvolved with this when I read it about ten years ago, so disappointed.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I can see why it is harder to enjoy than most of her work. I’d read up on her own road trip which definitely worked in the book’s favour.

  2. Marina Sofia says:

    Yes, that air of distance in the female protagonists… and yet I feel her writing is less cold (or leaves me less cold) than some of the contemporary women writers who are in this vein.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      You mentioned Moshfegh and Zink in your Sweet William review, whose protagonists really do leave me cold. Beryl’s may have that distance or detachment, but they’re more interesting with it which makes the difference I feel.

  3. Claire 'Word by Word' says:

    Interesting that you posted this today, I heard on French classic FM today an account of JFK’s assassination, the anniversary of which is today, alongside a piece of music, I’m not sure what it was exactly, but reading your post made me recall it.

    Beryl does seem to have had an interesting life, plenty to inspire her storytelling.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I should have realised re JFK but didn’t so sheer coincidence! I loved that she went back to add a story from her own life after a run of purely historical stories, for her final book, as that’s where she started really.

  4. madamebibilophile says:

    I’ve not read this, it does sound like there’s still plenty to enjoy. Did you see the documentary her grandson made when she was writing this? I watched it at the time but I’ve not seen it since, I remember it as very warm and affectionate though.

  5. Calmgrove says:

    Well, I may try this as my first Bainbridge, Annabel! Having recently a documentary series about Sinatra, the Kennedys and the Mafia, this autofiction appeals, especially as this coincidence has revived memories of living through these years of grainy monochrome newsreels as a teen.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It’s not one I’d recommend as a first Bainbridge read as Rose and Harold are difficult to like, but if the setting really appeals, then that’s half the battle.

Leave a Reply