The Girl In The Polka Dot Dress by Beryl Bainbridge

[[beryl]]Rose arrives in America with three weeks to find Dr Wheeler. She is broke and has been sponsored by Washington Harold, who has an equally absorbing need to find Dr Wheeler, which is lost on Rose. Harold has a plan and Rose is a concomitant accessory to his obsessive pursuit of the man who has ruined his life. He has purchased a camper for their trip and muses that Rose will be ‘knocked out by the whole thing’ in the hope that he will in some way get a leg over Rose and something over Dr Wheeler.

But he hasn’t factored in Rose: her pubescent mentality and banal observations, or the demands of life on the road with her – her surreptitious smoking and unwillingness to bathe. She stubbornly wears the same creased blouse and raincoat because she is saving her polka dot dress for Dr Wheeler. And yet they somehow forge an unlikely friendship in spite of the secrets they keep from each other.

One cannot help but feel that Bainbridge’s final novel is an ode to Nabokov’s Lolita. The campgrounds and motels they stop in are peopled with oddballs and hysterics. Harold is a repulsive, sweaty, neurotic who is constantly defining his relationship with Rose to others, while trying to determine the exact nature of Rose’s relationship with the enigmatic Dr Wheeler.

As they visit Harold’s friends along the way there is a growing concern for his state of mind that parallels the escalating violence in the news – the assassination of Martin Luther King and JFK. Sadly, Bainbridge (pictured above) died before completing The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress and although her manuscript was prepared for publication by her long-time editor and friend, Brendan King, the ending is confused.

Justine Douglas is manager of Readings Port Melbourne