Two days before the book club meeting I discovered that the book to be discussed was The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress by Beryl Bainbridge, and not According to Queeney (see previous post). I downloaded The Girl quickly on my Kindle and read it over two evenings; easily done: it’s not a hefty book by any means.
Having joined this group now, it’s great to hear the different viewpoints on a book and to exchange viewpoints – I am so used to reading on my own and writing up a review without much consultation (and previously, always in a hurry because of the day job as well!); it is quite refreshing to listen to what others have to say, and to have the time to consider a bit more in-depth what you like or dislike about a book.
After reading Queeney I was not very keen on reading another Bainbridge, immediately; in fact, the Girl with the Polka Dot Dress was on my ‘tbr’ list for a long time and I removed it a couple of months ago because that list has become so very long. However, having read it now, I liked it much better than Queeney even if the story itself and (the characters) do leave some question marks. First of all, the book is unfinished of course: Bainbridge wrote it while very ill and she died before being able to apply the finishing touches although I believe that she never intended to clarify the end of the story much more than what we have now. Nevertheless, it begs for an ending, something that gives us a clue at least as to what happens to the two main characters but also to Wheeler.
At the start of the story, Washington Harold gets his ‘newly bought second-hand camper’ ready for a trip and he is waiting for ‘Wheeler’s girl’ who is coming over from England to join him in his search for Wheeler. He expects that he and the girl called Rose will ‘get to know each other real well and sunset time, wearing her polka-dot dress, she would toss the salad while he fixed drinks and made the fire; later, dark time, he’s stab his fingers at the heavens and list the names of the stars.‘ He also considers that ‘If they really hit it off he might take her into his confidence as regards Wheeler. Not everything of course.‘
Rose, however, is a huge disappointment to Harold and this clash between the two personalities sets the scene for the road journey they undertake together in what she calls Harold’s van (he is offended), and her expectation is that they will spend the nights in boarding houses. Harold has quite different ideas to begin with.
Harold has private means, he has investments thanks to his second stepfather which means that he does not have to work, although there is the suggestion that he is a psychiatrist. He is not a confident man, even though a bit of a bully towards Rose, and is haunted by his childhood with a mother who neglected him and a succession of stepfathers and uncles. He has a domineering personality towards women and is out for revenge on Wheeler, who, as we learn, had an affair with his wife who subsequently commits suicide when Wheeler leaves her. He is obsessed with cleanliness and is horrified at Rose’s disregard for personal hygiene.
Rose met Wheeler in England when in her teens and he was a neighbour. This is after the war and it is not quite clear what Wheeler was doing in England. One of Harold’s friend’s Jesse Shaefer hints that Wheeler’s stay in England might have had something to do with the Jupiter missiles stationed in Turkey. She considers Wheeler to have been her saviour, a man who helped her through her miserable childhood. Bainbridge’s sharp writing comes out for example when she informs us in a sentence on page 94 that Rose had an illegitimate child as a teenager: ‘She’d become a convert [to Catholicism] when she was sixteen, after Mother had given the baby up for adoption‘
Later, Rose meets Harold through friends in London where she has found a stable and good job as a dental assistant, and together they cook up the idea of going in search for Wheeler: Rose because she considers Wheeler to be her guardian angel, the person who rescued her when she was in despair during an awful childhood in the north of England. Harold has different motives of course, but she does not know that, and he thinks Rose might be helpful in locating Wheeler, who appears to be very evasive.
Bainbridge’s writing is succinct, there is not a superfluous sentence in this book I think. She drops pieces of information on the way that sharpen the two main characters, although we learn little about the minor characters, Harold’s friends on the way with whom they stay, and even if we understand the two different motives of the two for wanting to find Wheeler, the man himself remains shadowy and unclear. My only objection here is that the two characters Rose and Harold at times become caricatures of themselves – they are just too awful and the deadpan interchanges at times feel like a set up.
Rose is appalled by the guns everywhere: ‘No wonder Mr Kennedy got killed,’ Rose said. ‘Or that Luther King.’ This is an intimation of what is going to happen – Bainbridge ends the book and their journey in Los Angeles at the hotel where Robert Kennedy is killed without clarifying the role of the girl in the polka dot dress, mentioned in a newspaper article at the time. The search and the journey appear to be the plot of the book, not the end or the arrival, unless Bainbridge’s death interrupted the final chapter.
Writing up this review after having read the book so quickly and without making detailed notes, I realise that it probably warrants a second reading to appreciate all the clues and references. Neither Rose nor Harold might be appealing as characters – they are not – but perhaps Bainbridge was not out to give us characters that we would like, rather she was evoking a time in American history that was very bewildering and uneasy even if Rose is totally indifferent to what she sees.