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The Girl in The Polka Dot Dress by Beryl Bainbridge

“I don’t believe that Harold understands me, not really … we’re not on the same wavelength.”

British author, Beryl Bainbridge has been a great favourite for years, so when she died in 2010, I thought that all those wonderful books she’s written, all those hours of pleasure and entertainment were behind me. Permanently. Then came the news that there was another book–an unfinished manuscript. The fact that the book is unfinished raised some issues. While I knew that I would have to read The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, I was also concerned that the book might be a disappointment. I shouldn’t have worried.

Bainbridge’s friend and editor, Brendan King worked on the novel after the author’s death and calls it a “flawed masterpiece.”  It’s classic Bainbridge–replete with her signature mordant wit and brilliant observations of human nature. When writing the novel, Bainbridge mined a diary account of a three-week road trip she made across America in 1968. This real journey was from Washington to San Francisco while the fictional account found in The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress begins in Baltimore and ends in Los Angeles. The book may seem to be the story of the adventures encountered on a road trip, but the real focus is the story of two startlingly dissimilar individuals who exposed to the same events, have vastly different reactions.

It’s 1968, and The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress begins with the arrival in Baltimore of a British girl called Rose. She’s flown to America to look for Dr. Wheeler, a mysterious man she met sixteen years before “in some remote coastal village in the north of England.” An enigmatic figure, Wheeler held a special significance for Rose, and while she’s suffered through some personal problems, Wheeler has somehow, in his absence, achieved the significance of a guru.

Rose, who works in a bank,  has very little money (she scrapes together $47), and really can’t afford the trip, but she’s subsidized in her quest by the equally mysterious, middle-aged Washington Harold–yet another man she met in Britain and with whom she’s been corresponding for over a year. Washington Harold has agreed to help Rose find Wheeler, and he provides a camper in which the ill-matched pair embark across America. Harold is no good samaritan, and he has his own murky reasons for seeking out Wheeler.

Most of the humour comes from the cultural encounters Rose experiences and also the frustrations Rose’s guide, Harold, undergoes through his forced confinement with Rose. Rose is a bizarre, fey creature who’s an intriguing combination of other-worldly innocence, which sometimes acts as a protective shield,  meshed with the sagacious acceptance and wisdom of the elderly. She relates meeting a man on the plane, and while we pick up bad vibes, Rose, typically, doesn’t:

Rose hadn’t liked the sound the aircraft made as it tore through the sky, and it must have made her breathe heavily because the man in the next seat kept urging her to relax and take hold of his hand. All her life people had been telling her what to do, even strangers, which was curious. He was quite a nice man, in spite of him confiding that his wife had bad breath, so she did as suggested. It didn’t help.

The encounter with the man on the plane is magnified when she talks about the incident with Harold:

“The plane was marvellous,” she gushed. “So much food they give you … all that drink. A gentleman who spoke candidly of his wife treated me to champagne … wasn’t that kind of him? He’d been away on business, first in Tokyo, then in Ireland.” Only the bit about the business trips was true: she hadn’t been bought the champagne.

Harold think Rose is impressed when she sees his home, but here’s her real reaction:

The bathroom was tiled and none too clean. There was a torn curtain of plastic slung sideways from the bath. The tub, similar to the one she used in Kentish Town, stood on cast-iron legs, old and rusted. Judging from the state of the toilet bowl, Americans didn’t know about Vim. Which was funny seeing the way Harold, the evening she had invited him in for a coffee, had rubbed his finger across her bedside table and commented on the grime.

 Harold chalks up Rose’s peculiarities to being British, notes her lack of personal hygiene, and  finally decides she is a “retard.” Rose stubbornly fights back against what she sees as Harold’s controlling personality with disconnected flights of fancy and platitudes such as “Too much cleaning makes us susceptible to germs.” The trip essentially becomes an oddly comic battle of wits and will between Harold and Rose. Even Harold’s friends consider him an inflexible bore and seem to prefer Rose.  While Harold, a mature man who holds the keys to the camper and the financial purse strings, may think he has the upper hand, ultimately Rose is the winner, and at one point, Harold is appalled to find that he’s beginning to sound like Rose. Rose’s brilliantly bizarre thought processes defy logic and counterbalance as they verve off into absurdity:

It’s normal, ” she replied, “for people who come from different backgrounds to find it difficult to get on. It’s because we’re programmed by the people who brought us up.”

It was disconcerting the way she often came out with an intelligent observation, and irritating when, as always, she quickly ruined it, suggesting that if they were squirrels, the very first ones without parents, knowing how to find nuts would be a matter of luck, not inheritance. “If we didn’t see our mothers scrabbling beneath a pine tree, how could we know what to do?” she enquired absurdly.

Bainbridge creates a kaleidoscope of 60s America culture seen through Rose’s eyes–race problems, riots, the Vietnam war, and even a bank robbery take place as Rose and Harold drive across America in Harold’s camper van. Dr. Wheeler always seems one step ahead, and since he’s rumoured to be part of Kennedy’s election team, Rose and Harold head towards Los Angeles and a date with history…

For those who’ve never read a Beryl Bainbridge novel, if you’re a fan of Muriel Spark, then chances are that you will also enjoy Bainbridge.  

Copy courtesy of the publisher, Europa Editions

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