Miss Benson’s Beetle
This author, Rachel Joyce, is a wonder. In book after book, she creates social misfits and then proceeds not only to rivet us with their adventures, but make us love them as well. This happened to me with The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and The Music Shop. And it happened to me – even more powerfully – with her latest, Miss Benson’s Beetle.
Margery Benson is odd in both manners and looks. An amateur entomologist who is miserable teaching Home Ec at a girls’ school in 1950’s England, she up and quits one day and, adamantly, determinedly, single-mindedly sets off for the other side of the world, specifically, for the tiny island of New Caledonia in the South Seas.
Her goal is to find the heretofore unfound golden beetle that her late father, whom she loved, taught her about. The assistant she hires, Enid Pretty, is as quirky as Margery, the yin to her yang, the light to her dark. But Enid, too, has an unhappy past and unfulfilled dreams. For very different reasons, she is as driven as Margery.
The plotting of Miss Benson’s Beetle is perfect. Different threads of the story are woven together at just the right times and with just the right tension. Descriptions of England, of the long cruise to the South Seas, of New Caledonia itself are fragrant and lush. Plot twists and turns are strikingly imaginative and, in some cases, hilarious. Oh, I did laugh – aloud, more than once. And then there is the unlikely friendship between Margery and Enid, unfolding as masterfully as the wings of Margery’s elusive beetle.
Friendship is just one of the things this book is about. It’s also about the place of women in the 1950’s and the small ways they find to exert their power. It’s about motherhood – how some need it and others fear it, and why. It’s about the pain of loss and the trauma of survival. But it’s also about discovery – about what is possible if we dare to follow our dreams.
Miss Benson’s Beetle lingers in my mind. What an uplifting book!