Tag Archives: Robert F. Kennedy

Book Club Reflection: The Girl in the Polka-dot Dress by Beryl Bainbridge

7 Oct

It’s time for the second installment of Book Club Reflections!  This will be the last one where I have not previously reviewed the book with my own thoughts so bear with me while I summarize the book (and, unfortunately, give away the ending).  This was quite an interesting discussion as this book was a last minute substitute for the book the group had previously chosen and no one in our group had recommended it.  Usually we have at least one strong advocate for the novel but this month there wasn’t a soul.

Book Cover Image taken from Goodreads.com

Book Cover Image taken from Goodreads.com

Beryl Bainbridge’s novel The Girl in the Polka-dot Dress is a fictional account of events leading up to the very real assassination of Robert Kennedy in July of 1968.  The story follows two people, Harold and Rose, who are driving across the US looking for the mysterious Dr. Wheeler.  Rose knew Dr. Wheeler in childhood and remembers him as one of the few people who was nice to her growing up.  Harold has a very different view and despises Wheeler for breaking up his marriage with his ex-wife; Harold is out for revenge.

Their travels take them from Baltimore to California and they stop along the way to visit a colorful cast of friends and random strangers who add to their journey.  Wheeler seems to always be one step ahead of them on his campaign trail with Robert Kennedy and they meet him finally in Los Angeles.  While Rose is looking around for Dr. Wheeler, Harold heads off with some friends and (the reader assumes) assassinates Robert Kennedy.

It’s good to have some background on this story before getting into a discussion.  Most noteworthy is that Bainbridge died in the midst of writing this manuscript.  This article explains that her editor took the manuscript and prepared it for publication, taking Bainbridge’s wishes for the book and past styles into account.  According to many eye witnesses, there was a woman in a polka-dot dress talking to assassin Sirhan Sirhan before he assassinated the Senator (see source article).

Now for a discussion.  I had read reviews on Goodreads that I wasn’t going to like the ending of this book.  Many readers said they enjoyed Bainbridge’s quick pace and writing style but were grossly disappointed by the ending.  I will echo these thoughts; I liked it until two pages from the end.  There wasn’t a single person in our book club who liked the book or would recommend it.

I just spent twenty minutes combing Google for some discussion questions that I could link to and go over, but there is absolutely nothing out there, so I’m going to go this alone.  Wish me luck.

The first thing our group discussed is “Who is Dr. Wheeler?” which seems a very good question to start with as he is the reason our two characters are brought together.  Who is this man that could bring a girl from England who met him years ago and hasn’t seen him in a while together with a man of seemingly good social standing to drive across the country on a wild goose chase?  I’ve stated Rose’s intentions already and will add that she claims to have remained in contact with Wheeler’s wife who lives in England and Harold did not believe existed for a long time.

Our group had a few theories, my favorite being that Wheeler was a code name for Kennedy.  Another was that Wheeler didn’t really exist!  One member was able to point out on page 161 that Fury, a friend of Harold’s, had confirmed that Wheeler was part of the Kennedy entourage and that was the reason he was following the Senator around.  This still doesn’t answer what Wheeler did or why (we assume) Harold killed Kennedy instead of Wheeler.  Was he aiming for Wheeler and shot Kennedy?  Bainbridge leaves a lot up to the imagination in her writing style and the question is never really answered.  The reader’s guide we had during our discussion said that Harold blames Wheeler for JFK’s assassination, but doesn’t give a reason.  We thought through some ways a person could be responsible for JFK’s assassination, but came up blank.  Any thoughts from you, Reader?

There was a lot of foreshadowing throughout the book that we were able to gather in our group.  One woman said that in the scene where Rose finds Harold’s gun, she believed Rose knew that they were searching for Wheeler for different purposes.  Rose might have thought then that Harold was going to try to kill Wheeler but didn’t seem to act on it.  On page 116, a fortune teller says that she will see a man in a yellow sweater on a horse, which occurs only pages later on 125.  Rose doesn’t seem to remember the premonition but the man continues to show up a few more times (131, 148, 161).  I see going back now that his name was none other than Sirhan and that he was present in the hotel when Harold went off away from Rose.  (For my fellow book-clubers, I wish we’d seen this last Monday!)  The other foreshadowing we noticed was on page 71 where a room Rose is staying in has a picture of a woman named Ethyl and her nine children.  Ethyl was Robert and John’s mothers name and there were a total of nine children in that family.  The last one we noticed was on page 70 where an un-named character says of RFK “He may win, but he won’t live long enough to take it any further.”

The problem with this foreshadowing became that the reader was on high alert for it and it seemed that everything was significant when in fact a lot of what Bainbridge said led to a dead end for the reader.  There was a part that described a pen Rose had brought over from England that was her father’s.  Early in the book, she takes a scrap of newspaper off the wall in Harold’s house, wraps it around the pen and buries them both.  It is never explained what this means.  Reader, if you have a guess, please share it here.

The relationship between the two characters is very vague.  On page 18 it explains that Harold met Rose in England when he was there through some mutual friends.  He saw a picture of Dr. Wheeler in her room when they went home together.  An unknown amount of time later, he’s paying for a one-way ticket for her to come to the US and offering to help her find Dr. Wheeler.  We guessed that Harold was using Rose as a way to get to Dr. Wheeler.  Toward the end, he says that he has a return ticket for her as well, something she was hoping to not need because she wanted to stay in the US with Dr. Wheeler.

Neither character is very likable.  Rose lies so often that the reader cannot trust her as a narrator nor as a person in general.  Everything she says must be taken with caution.  Harold seems more sane because he has moments of clarity in which he acts rationally, taking care of his financial affairs for example.  When I read, I like to find a character I like, latch on to them, and root for them until the end.  That was impossible to do in this book and took away from my enjoyment of it.

One thing I commented on was the violence in the book.  In the opening scenes, they are fighting their way out of Washington DC after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the ensuing riots.  The assassination of JFK is brought up frequently and many of the side characters met along the way are injured or dying.  Many of the people in my book club remember living through the late 1960s and described it as a very volatile and violent era.  They mentioned the Cuban Missile Crisis, Detroit Race Riots (which took me back to the book Grand River and Joy) and protests all culminating in the shootings at Kent State University (OH).  The book seems like an accurate reflection of the time with all of it’s violent and crude characters.

Writer’s Takeaways: This is one of the times I”m dreading doing a Writer’s Takeaway.  There were a lot of things I didn’t like about the novel, such as weird side actions (the pen) that didn’t lead anywhere and such an ambiguous ending that you have to read deep into RFK conspiracy theories to figure them out (and even then you’re a bit off).

What I will say Bainbridge did very well was foreshadowing.  If I were to read the novel a second time after having done all of this research, I think I might have caught them all.  I think it would have been better had they been more obvious or had Bainbridge worked a little more of the history into the novel.

The book was also a very quick read.  I finished it in only a few days, which is incredibly fast for me.  Her short sentences and quick prose really helped do this.  We all in the group agreed it was well written, but it still made us angry.  If her goal was to evoke a reaction, she did that very well.

This was much harder to write than my last Book Club Reflection and I think it had to do with the confusion caused to the readers and the lack of guiding questions.  I hope that this discussion can give you some ideas to go off of, Reader, if you decide to join in reading it.  Please leave some thoughts you had on the book, if you’ve read it, and if you haven’t let me know if you’re at all interested after hearing this.  I believe this was semi-coherent and to my fellow book-club-goer who said this would be challenging to write, touche, it was.