London, 1950: Miss Margery Benson, age 46, has decided to ditch her dull teaching job and follow her youthful dream of finding the golden beetle of New Caledonia, despite limited means and even less understanding of how the world works. Miss Benson’s Beetle is about a search for an entomological wonder on the other side of the world, through unlikely friendship and against wave after wave of seemingly insurmountable odds. It’s also about making a life that has meaning, purpose, and connection.
Too tall, too big, socially clueless, and lacking the communal bonds of family or friendship, Margery has survived the war years only to find the same dreariness on the other side. She has never quite fit in. She “. . .got the feeling she was always looking at life through a glass wall, but one that had bobbles in it and cracks, so that she could never fully see what was on the other side, and even when she did it was too late . . . something inside her was hurting . . . she would always be on the outside.”
Miss Benson’s Beetle isn’t a comedy, but Margery’s physical attributes and social awkwardness brought to mind one of my favorite British sitcoms, Miranda, and its star, Miranda Hart: frequently inept but always aiming for something better. There are literal and figurative stumbles for Margery, but she’s open to learning from them.
Without the sounding board of friend or family to raise any doubts, Margery is free to execute her far-fetched plan: travel by ship to Australia and then by seaplane to New Caledonia, purchase of all the supplies she’ll need to trap and preserve beetle samples, and employment of an assistant to accompany her from the ship, to a tropical bungalow, and to the golden beetle’s mountaintop home. The process of finding that assistant sets up dramatic tensions that will ripple and swell throughout the novel—not only companionship, but humor and calamity, terror and insight:
Margery felt the old heaviness again. The war was over and yet there seemed to be no end to the suffering that had to be endured—and not even in full view: behind doors, where no one could see . . . It occurred to Margery that this was how it was, that there was always darkness, and in this darkness was unspeakable suffering, and yet there were also the daily things—there was even the search for a gold beetle—and while they could not cancel the appalling horror, they were as real.
There’s no lack of insights gained, and expressed, in Miss Benson’s Beetle; almost every chapter delivers a shard of wisdom. It’s that category of novel where an unlikely undertaking yields new perceptions for its protagonist. That’s not to say I didn’t appreciate the book for exactly what it offers; in life, we gain a little understanding, make more mistakes, gain a little more understanding, and so on. Margery “got the strangest sense that everything she wanted was ahead and available, so long as she was brave enough to claim it.” We all need to be reminded, from time to time, to stake a claim on what seems out of reach.