Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce [7/10]

Rachel Joyce, an immersive English novelist (author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, which I enjoyed in book and filmic form) does seem drawn to the same genus of character, the very ordinary citizen impelled by inchoate motivations to attempt hopeless adventures, and one is tempted to suggest she might become trapped by this fondness for a particular storyline. But Miss Benson’s Beetle works because it is a variation on that pattern. Margery Benson, a plump, dejected teacher in England in 1950, impulsively quits and “follows her dream,” stoked since childhood, to travel to Indonesia to be the first to find an exotic beetle. Her companion turns out to be a contrasting, pink-suited young woman of impulsive, expedient character, and the two of them, as they embark on an adventure neither is remotely equipped for, forge a most unlikely partnership. The author writes wonderfully evocative scenes, the storyline is full of twists and turns, and their remote island comes to life in these pages. One ancillary character feels clunky and, as with Harold Fry, mawkishness is not far below the surface, but overall, Miss Benson’s Beetle is a rambunctious girl’s own romp that is a fun, surprisingly affecting read.

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