Book Review for “Miss Benson’s Beetle” by Rachel Joyce.
Goodreads Blurb: “It is 1950. In a devastating moment of clarity, Margery Benson abandons her dead-end job and advertises for an assistant to accompany her on an expedition. She is going to travel to the other side of the world to search for a beetle that may or may not exist. Enid Pretty, in her unlikely pink travel suit, is not the companion Margery had in mind. And yet together they will be drawn into an adventure that will exceed every expectation. They will risk everything, break all the rules, and at the top of a red mountain, discover their best selves.“
Do I need to repeat myself? Yes, I’m a Rachel Joyce addict, and she’s fed my addiction once again. Of course, that also means I’m once again going to have a hard time reviewing this novel; there is just so much to love here. So, let’s start at the beginning – the premise of this book. The idea that a middle-aged woman would just suddenly leave her life behind to do something totally out of character is a theme that Joyce has visited before. The fact is, while on the surface Margery seems like she’s suddenly gone crazy, the truth is she’s had this dream her whole life, which the opening line to this novel clearly suggests. That is, “When Margery was ten, she fell in love with a beetle.” Joyce goes on to draw Margery as the type of person who hides her real self from the world, due to all of the losses and disappointments she’s experienced throughout her life.
As sad as this sounds, what keeps this novel from becoming morose is Joyce’s ability to see the absurdities in these unhappy occurrences, even when Margery is unable to laugh at herself or the things she does. Sometimes, when someone takes themselves too seriously, they can be very funny to watch, and that’s exactly how Joyce draws Margery. One could say that Margery is a sort of adult female Eeyore, with her gloomy outlook, her lack of confidence, and self-effacing moments. Yes, these can be annoying traits, but with the humor infused here, Joyce stops well short of making Margery into someone we would pity. Instead, we want to egg Margery on, and that’s what makes her into a true hero, who will finally attempt to find that golden beetle in the wilds of New Caledonia!
Pairing Margery with the bubbly Enid Pretty as her erstwhile companion on this adventure, is much like placing Tigger next to our Eeyore. The difference here is that underneath the bounce and seemingly mindless chatter, Joyce reveals a woman who has far more depth and wisdom than her pink traveling suit and pom-pom sandals would suggest. Joyce also brings in an antagonist into the mix as well in the shape of Mundic, an ex-soldier who was a POW during WWII in the South Pacific. He applies to Margery to be her companion for her expedition, but this doesn’t work out. His mental instability and recurring bouts of illness from the beriberi he contracted as a prisoner are the darker sides of this novel, in sharp contrast to Enid and her wild, spontaneous demeanor.
Of course, all of these characters (along with a few others along the way) are off on a big adventure, right? So, although this sounds very much like a character driven novel – which it certainly is – it also has a truly amazing story-line as well to carry them all along. Aside from some flashbacks that reveal the backstories of all three of these people, we have what could best be described as a quest. In fact, all three of them have their own quest, with the central one being Margery’s search for the gold beetle. Joyce could easily have written this as a thriller novel, with her ability to add twists and obstacles for her protagonists and their antagonist here, and you have to admit that there are a few heart-stopping scenes, peppered in with the humor and somewhat cynical view of the human condition. This is the genius of Joyce. Furthermore, Joyce achieves all of this with such deceptive economy of language, that you don’t realize just how descriptive she’s able to craft her prose, making every scene come alive with light and color (yeah, this would make a really luscious movie).
I also have to say that Joyce continues to show her mastery of pacing with this novel. There’s not a page that goes by that doesn’t make you want to keep reading to the next bit and the next. Case in point – I usually read about 10 pages of a print book before going to sleep (I read somewhere that this can help you if you have trouble falling asleep, which is a problem I have). Well, with most of the books I’ve read, I often have to keep myself awake to make it to the end of my 10th page. With Joyce’s book… I had to force myself to stop after 20, it was that compelling! Finally, after all the things that made me laugh throughout the story, she made me cry with a highly-charged, emotional climax which she kept back until the very end of the book! Therefore, there’s no need for me to say anything more; I wholeheartedly recommend this novel and give it a full five stars out of five!
Doubleday (a division of Penguin Random House) will release “Miss Benson’s Beetle” by Rachel Joyce in the UK on July 21, 2020, and in the US Dial Press will release this on November 24, 2020. This book is (or will be) available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Walmart (Kobo) US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), Wordery or The Book Depository (both with free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org (supporting independent book stores) or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the author for sending me an uncorrected proof copy of this novel (at her own expense, and internationally, no less), which she even signed! Thank you! I will treasure it, always!
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