Friday, January 8, 2021

Historical Fiction Mini Reviews: A Tender Thing and Miss Benson's Beetle

Eleanor O'Hanlon is done with her boring life in Wisconsin. When she sees an advertisement for an open call for a show in New York City, she decides to head to the big city and audition. While she is not cast in that show, her audition impresses composer Don Mannheim. He invites her to be the star of his controversial new musical "A Tender Thing." The show tells the story of a biracial couple, and 1950s audiences are furious. As tensions rise both onstage and backstage, Eleanor must decide who she wants to be as an actress and as her own person. 

Emily Neuberger's love for the theatre is evident throughout A Tender Thing. Her descriptions of singing a perfect song or being exhausted after a lengthy rehearsal are excellent. But this story succeeds and fails with Eleanor. She is unexperienced but lucky in almost every way--she miraculously lands a leading role in a Broadway musical with no training, men find her intriguing, and this is the first time she sees the difference between the treatment she receives as a white woman and the treatment her costar Charles receives as a black man. This book might be a good pick for readers who love theatre, but I sometimes found it a bit difficult to read as everything consistently works out for Eleanor.

A Tender Thing
By Emily Neuberger
G. P Putnum's Sons April 2020
320 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Things are difficult in 1950s London, and Margery Benson is just trying to keep her head down and make it through another day of teaching home economics. When students pass around a nasty caricature of her, she finally snaps. Margery leaves her job and her home to embark on a sacred quest. Ever since childhood, she has wanted to find the mythical golden beetle of New Caledonia. With the unlikely Enid Pretty as her assistant, she sets off for an adventure unlike anything she has ever experienced. 

Miss Benson's Beetle, at its heart, might be a story about finding what gives you joy. Margery has been constrained by society's rules about what a woman should do, despite never finding her place there. Enid has used her looks to make it through life, but living in the jungle with Margery allows her to discover who she wants to be and how she wants to act when her life is not dictated by men. Rachel Joyce writes these two very different women so well, and the story of their growing friendship is compelling. Unfortunately, the book is a bit long and Joyce introduces a third storyline which doesn't add anything to the story. While this is not my favorite Joyce book, I have certainly found a place in my bookish heart for Margery and Enid and their adventures.

Miss Benson's Beetle
By Rachel Joyce
Dial Press November 2020
352 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Also by Rachel Joyce:


  1. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on both of these, thanks.

  2. I've just started Miss Benson's Beetle, and I'm greatly enjoying it so far, so I will only browse briefly through your thoughts for now.

  3. I hope to get to Miss Benson's Beetle some time this year. Thanks for sharing!