Miss Benson's Beetle by Rachel Joyce

Leave it to Rachel Joyce to make me lust after a beetle. But not just any beetle. A golden beetle, and one that has never been found. Is this real, the golden beetle that holds such a prominent place in Joyce’s latest novel? Or is it metaphor?

Maybe it’s both.

She will be joining me to discuss her work at the next virtual Writing Matter event in early January. 

Miss Benson’s Beetle was an immediate New York Times bestseller, and it deserved to be. The book is about the search for the beetle, yes, but it’s so much more. It’s about a search for self. It’s about how the feeling of being unappreciated can fuel changes in your life — big changes. 

It’s also about female friendship. Not that there’s much hope for the two disparate women the novel turns on to become best buds at first: Margery Benson, who is looking for an assistant to accompany her to New Caledonia in her search of that elusive beetle, is an uptight, lonely former school teacher. Enid Pretty is a bit of a floozy who seems to attract trouble wherever she goes. But they find a way. 

Acclaimed author Ann Napolitano said, “This novel made me realize how hungry I am for stories about women loving each other into being their best selves.” 

Joyce is also the author of the hugely popular, Booker Prize-nominated, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. After I finished reading that, I held it to my chest and nearly blessed it. You know that feeling? When a book is so well realized, when it ends up meaning so much, you’re loathe to lend it to anyone? One of my favorite reviews of that book said, “It was moving, believable, funny and heartbreaking by turns. I got my husband to read it and he remarked, “What a lovely person Rachel Joyce must be, to have written such a story.” As indeed she is. 

But Joyce is not only lovely, she’s funny. She once spoke to librarians and revealed that she “actually had a job” as a volunteer in the library: she was allowed to put books back on the shelf. Sometimes, she said, she went to the J section and rearranged some of the books there to be in a more prominent position. Wink.

She’s interesting, too. She says that between her first writing ambitions at age 14 and the writing of her first novel, she was, “a young woman, a mother, an actress, and a writer of radio drama — not to mention a terrible waitress in a wine bar, a door-to-door sales girl for one morning and an assistant in a souvenir shop.” 

I’ll be talking to her about the glorious humanity and the unforgettable characters she creates as a writer, but you can believe I’ll also ask her about those other jobs. 

I founded Writing Matters because for me, what matters most in books is the writing. I want to be moved by a story, but even more so by the language used in telling that story. I look for authors who meet a rather high bar, in that respect, and deliver them to an audience I have found to be appreciative and respectful. 

Before the pandemic, we held our events in a space filled with flowers, music, great food and wine, and authors there to personalize books. We look forward to doing it again at the beautiful Nineteenth Century Club in Oak Park when it is safe to do so. In the meantime, we have been able to get authors we would never have been able to because of distance — Joyce will be coming to us from England. And we have audiences members from far away, too. It’s been fun to see how far: New Zealand, anyone?

It matters to me that our events are personable, fun and inspiring, and that we slip in a bit of edification every now and then as well. We love to try to accommodate all audience questions and comments, too. 

Writing Matters with Elizabeth Berg in conversation with Rachel Joyce is Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, 2 p.m. It is a free event, held in partnership with the Nineteenth Century Charitable Association. Register: nineteenthcentury.org.

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