To be honest, I’m not a big reader of historical fiction. Reading Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce, which is set in 1950, was a departure for me, but I was open to it after having read her previous – and in my opinion, profound – book The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. I was pleased to find the story of Miss Benson an entertaining voyage into friendship, scientific inquiry, grief, post-war trauma, and how far we go to follow our dreams.
Our heroine is Margery Benson, who in 1914 at ten years old fell in love with beetles to help her deal with a personal loss, and became particularly fascinated by the golden beetle of New Caledonia, whose existence has never been proven. However, somewhere along the way she lost hold of her dreams, until she finds herself 46 years old, standing in front of a classroom teaching cookery, confiscating a note that turns out to be a less than flattering caricature of herself. Forced to face the difference between the life she wanted and the life she has, Miss Benson takes a leap of faith and embarks on a self-funded expedition to New Caledonia, determined to find the golden beetle once and for all. But she can’t do it alone. She’ll need an assistant. Enter the perky, flashy, enigmatic, blond-dyed, pink-hat-wearing, deeply unsuitable Enid Pretty, a woman with her own dreams to chase, and who will completely upend Margery Benson’s sense of the world, and herself.
I remain in awe of writers like Joyce who can weave together humor with grief and hardship with friendship to give you an engaging and meaningful tapestry of everyday life. I found this book funny and heartfelt, covering tough topics but not so heavily as to be depressing or off-putting. Also, like in her earlier Harold Fry, Joyce does a good job creating a journey for her characters that is both physical and emotional, and which leaves them forever changed.
This book is recommended for those who like books about female friendship, international travel, and the empowerment of women throughout history.