An Unlikely Beauty

Miss Benson’s Beetle
by Rachel Joyce
New York: Dial Press
368 pp., $18.00

Why read fiction? It’s life without consequences. Reading Miss Benson’s Beetle, a novel of manners that successfully mixes satire, farce, adventure, and mystery, reminds one of the value of imaginative literature.

Most of the action takes place after World War II, while Great Britain still suffered from severe shortages of foodstuffs, other goods, and men. Large, awkward, ill-clad and ill-shod, lacking charm and wealth, though not intelligence, Margery Benson teaches home economics in a girls’ school. She has no family: Her brothers were killed in 1914 and her parents are dead, her father having shot himself in grief. The severe aunts who saw her through school are gone. One learns of her tentative romance with a museum scientist that ended when she discovered the man was already married.

But Miss Benson has virtues and resources unsuspected even by herself. One is constancy. She has remained enamored of the Golden Beetle of New Caledonia, which her father had pointed out in a book. (That devotion to beetles is what drew her to the museum for research.) Moreover,...

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