Discoveries: Beryl Bainbridge

By Susan Salter ReynoldsSeptember 3, 2011

The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress by Beryl Bainbridge

ALL OF BERYL BAINBRIDGE'S characters are refugees from the past. They arrive on the pages of her books either shot from a cannon with a mission or weary from trudging across borders. The reader is thrown, breathlessly, into the center of their lives. 

In The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress we meet Rose, 30, fresh off a plane from London to Washington, D.C., where Harold Grasse, a psychologist, picks her up in his van. Together, they begin a journey across the country, both in search of a certain Dr. Fred Wheeler. Wheeler was kind to Rose, who met him when she was, at eleven, a refugee from horrible parents in Kentish Town, England. She wants to find him. Harold, we learn slowly (Bainbridge, who always prized style over story, makes us work for our portion of plot) wants to kill him.

They travel clue to clue, following Wheeler, who is on the campaign trail with Robert Kennedy. In 1968, Beryl Bainbridge, who died at 77 in 2010 (this manuscript, which was finished by her old friend and editor, Brendan King, was thirty pages from the finish line), drove across the United States, and like Harold and Rose, she arrived in Los Angeles on the night when Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel. 

The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress is a picaresque journey, reminiscent of the Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou, with its eerie landscapes and strange roadside characters. Sixties America is a three-ring circus: feminism, Vietnam, and race riots. Reading Bainbridge is a fast and bumpy ride. You cannot fall asleep at the wheel or you will miss a critical detail. Her trigger finger is ever on the pulse of human existence — that place where history and daily life, sex and politics, and power and vulnerability meet.

LARB Contributor

Susan Salter Reynolds is a book critic and writer who lives in Los Angeles and Vermont. She has three children: Sam, Ellie, and Mia.


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