The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress

Today we’ll take a look at an uncommon thing: a novel begun by one writer and finished by another that manages to uphold the reputation of the fine author who conceived its intricate story.

The Girl In the Polka Dot Dress
By Beryl Bainbridge

(Penguin, $15, 208 pages) 

Who is this author?

Dame Beryl Bainbridge, an English author, was still at work on her 17th novel when she died in July 2010, at 77. She grew up in an unhappy home in Liverpool, and for a time was an actress and later a theater critic before finding her true calling as a writer. Bainbridge published contemporary and historical novels, short stories and non-fiction in her long career, overcoming early rejections to grow into a respected novelist with an international audience.

Several of her novels were adapted as films, including 1989’s “An Awfully Big Adventure” (1989) which became a 1995 movie with Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant. That novel and four others were finalists for the prestigious Booker Prize in England, and her “Every Man For Himself,” about the sinking of the Titanic, won the 1996 Whitbread Novel of the Year Prize, another major British award. After her death, her editor completed “The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress,” and reviewers are calling it a successful collaboration.

What is this book about?

It’s not a classic mystery nor an historical novel, but it involves a search for a mysterious figure and ends in a real historical time and place: at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on the night in 1968 when Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. (Bainbridge happened to be visiting Los Angeles when Kennedy was murdered.)

The searchers, traveling across America in that dreadful year of killings, war, racial turmoil and riots, are Rose, a young Englishwoman, and an American who calls himself Washington Harold: both are seeking an enigmatic man known as Dr. Wheeler, part of RFK’s entourage. He had helped Rose when she was a teenager, but he also had an affair with Washington’s wife, who committed suicide. Rose adores Wheeler; vengeful Harold hates him  – and both want desperately to find him.

Why you’ll like it:

Bainbridge had a gift for “dark, deadpan wit,” says Kirkus Reviews, and her ability to find the comic underpinnings of otherwise tragic events was a trademark of her style. She enjoyed beginning with an actual event and spinning her fictional tale around it, giving her readers a new way to think about a familiar story. Her novels were short, compelling and addictive to her large group of fans. Though a prolific and admired writer, she was matter-of-fact about writing. As The New York Times pointed out in its obituary of Bainbridge:

“I am of the firm belief that everybody could write books, and I never understand why they don’t,” she told the reference work “Contemporary Novelists” in 1976. “After all, everyone speaks. Once the grammar has been learnt, it is simply talking on paper and in time learning what not to say.”

If only it were that easy.

What others are saying:

“Curiously, its incompleteness doesn’t diminish this short, haunting novel… . The unanswered questions add to its mystery and strange power,” says The New York Times.

“…you’ll almost certainly enjoy Beryl Bainbridge’s dry humor and her book’s pervasive sense of menace. It’s an odd combination, but Bainbridge brings it off beautifully,” says the Washington Post.

“…for lovers of Bainbridge’s oeuvre, this is the book that places the period at the end of her life’s work and shouldn’t be missed,” says Publishers Weekly.

“Both vivid and dark, this page-turner is sure to be sought after by both historical fiction and mystery lovers. Highly recommended,” says Library Journal.

When is it available?

“The Girl In the Polka Dot Dress” is on the shelves now at the Hartford Public Library.