Almost Famous Women: A Book Review

Hello!

Almost Famous WomenTitle: Almost Famous Women
Author: Megan Mayhew Bergman
Published: January 6th 2015, by Scribner
Pages: 256
Genre: Adult / Historical Fiction
Source: Library / Hardcover
Series: N/A

The fascinating lives of the characters in Almost Famous Women have mostly been forgotten, but their stories are burning to be told. Now Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise, resurrects these women, lets them live in the reader’s imagination, so we can explore their difficult choices. Nearly every story in this dazzling collection is based on a woman who attained some celebrity—she raced speed boats or was a conjoined twin in show business; a reclusive painter of renown; a member of the first all-female, integrated swing band. We see Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter, Allegra; Oscar Wilde’s troubled niece, Dolly; West With the Night author Beryl Markham; Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sister, Norma. These extraordinary stories travel the world, explore the past {and delve into the future}, and portray fiercely independent women defined by their acts of bravery, creative impulses, and sometimes reckless decisions.

The world hasn’t always been kind to unusual women, but through Megan Mayhew Bergman’s alluring depictions they finally receive the attention they deserve. Almost Famous Women is a gorgeous collection from an “accomplished writer of short fiction” {Booklist}. {Goodreads}

My Thoughts: I have found the best way to review a short story collection is simple: write up a few short sentences on each piece of work! Bergman’s newest book is fascinating, and she has certainly proven herself a talented author in short fiction. Though I enjoyed some of the stories more than others, I finished thinking Bergman accomplished her goal; I not only learned about the “forgotten” women of history, but I also wanted to research them all further.

It is important to note that Almost Famous Women may be based on fact, but it is still a work of fiction. Bergman uses her artistic liberty to craft stunning pieces on their lives that are each interesting, but imagined all the same. I’ve provided a picture of the women written about for your own reference, in case you want to do some research on your own {after you look for the book yourself, that is}.

Pretty Grown Together ChildrenThe first short story highlights conjoined twins and entertainment duo, Daisy and Violet Hilton. Stars as children and young women, the twins led unusual – and sadly, depressing – lives. Bergman captures their mental and physical decay well with the narrative style, and the lack of quotation marks is fitting given the relationship of the sisters.

Siege at Whale CayAlthough Joe Carstairs is frequently overlooked in history, Bergman brings a sense of intrigue and character to her story in The Siege at Whale Cay. One of the strongest aspects of this collection is the inconsistency in narration, as Bergman experiments throughout the book with perspective. Here, readers “live” through Georgie, the young lover of Carstairs; she acts as different lens to the eccentric boat racer’s life.

Norma Millay's Film NoirEdna St. Vincent Millay is a well-known poet, but her sister, Norma, was a name lost on me until I read Norma Millay’s Film Noir Period. Unfortunately, however, this short story was one of the un-memorable bunch. I felt disconnected from the story {likely due to the unusual structure}, and my lack of any prior knowledge did nothing to help.

Romaine RemainsRomaine Remains shows painter Romaine Brooks at the end of her life and, like the stories before, is not told through her own perspective, but that of her servant, Mario. I found the dynamics between Brooks and her servant compelling, and the mood of the piece matches perfectly with Brook’s own work: bleak and depressing.

Hazel Eaton and the Wall of DeathHazel Eaton’s spotlight is short {If I remember correctly, it is no more than five pages}, but the brief length doesn’t deter from the reader’s enjoyment. Bergman invites her audience into Hazel’s inner thoughts and fears, leaving me merely curious, not disappointed.

Autobiography of Allegra ByronTold from the perspective of an ambiguous narrator, The Autobiography of Allegra Byron is an engrossing tale about Lord Byron’s young daughter. This is a highlight of the collection, rich with developed characters and significant themes. Furthermore, the layer of grief is important in shaping the story as a whole.

Expression TheoryWith little background provided about the main character, Lucia Joyce, readers are forced to piece together the two page story, Expression Theory, on their own. The writing is no different from the other short fiction works {in other words, gorgeous}, but the execution left much to be desired.

Saving Butterfly McQueenBy far my favorite piece of the collection, Saving Butterfly McQueen is a flashback into the past; the narrator, Elizabeth, recalls her meeting with Gone with the Wind actress, Butterfly McQueen. I adored the jump from present to past, as well as the development of each character, whether it be Elizabeth, Lank, an enthusiastic minister, or McQueen herself.

Who Killed Dolly Wilde?Dolly Wilde was the witty niece of Oscar Wilde, and her short story showcases her vivacious way of life. From the vivid characterization and the somber themes of war and death, Who Killed Dolly Wilde? is a stand-out in the collection. I particularly appreciated Bergman’s mention of other characters, Joe Carstairs and a friend of Romaine Brooks, in the narrative.

High-Grade B Sits Down for LunchThere’s no doubt that Beryl Markham was an interesting woman, but I can only say that after reading up on her on Google. The only thing A High Grade B—h Sits Down for Lunch could have benefitted from is a paragraph of background information, as the conflict between Beryl and the Horse was stellar writing.

The InterneesRarely do I come across first person plural, so it was a delightful surprise seeing it used in the short story, The Internees. Bergman writes of the women liberated at Bergen-Belsen in 1945 {made famous by Colonel Mervin Willett Gonin and artist Bansky}, fully illustrating the power of one moment in history.

Lottery, ReduxThe Lottery, Redux is a retelling of Shirley Jackson’s famous short story, The Lottery. It is completely out-of-place in this collection, but I cannot discount the talent it demonstrates. Both stories are chilling and terrifyingly intriguing, despite the little history readers are given going into the tale.

Hell-Diving WomenFinally, Hell-Diving Women is a different take on the horrors of segregation, following The International Sweethearts of Rhythm – in particular, trumpet player Tiny Davis – on the road. I had never heard of the musical group before, but my curiosity was piqued by Bergman’s powerful themes of love and race.

Need more convincing? Here’s what other reviewers have to say.
“Despite the disparate nature of these individuals’ experiences and the wide-ranging eras in which they lived, multiple thematic threads bind these short stories together: Namely, strong-willed, passionate women who take risks in life, love, and other pursuits” {read the rest of the review at The Boston Globe HERE}.

“In her second story collection, Almost Famous Women, Megan Mayhew Bergman delves into the lives of real women who skirted the fringes of fame, feminism, femininity, and polite society, looking at the ripple effects of both the choices they made and the ones that were made for them” {red the rest of the review at Heavy Feather Review HERE}.

Have a great Tuesday – I’m officially on summer break! :)

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4 thoughts on “Almost Famous Women: A Book Review

  1. Wow, Almost Famous Women seems like a book that I would truly enjoy because there’s nothing better that I like reading about in a book than historical fiction and strong women. I haven’t heard of most of these women (probably why they were only “almost famous”), but I’m looking forward to reading these stories. Is that letter from Allegra Byron real? Gah, I think all the Byron children write letters the same way. I read an biography on Ada Lovelace, a daughter of Lord Byron and it was filled with letters so somehow I immediately guessed that it was a Byron that wrote that quote before your words affirmed it. Either it’s real and they just write the same or the author mimicked the Byron style very well. Or it was just a coincidence that I came up with that…it was just weird…Okay, now I’m rambling. I’ll stop. :P

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hmm, I have no idea if it is a real letter or not! I believe the author did her research well before writing Allegra’s letters. How funny that they all sound the same though!

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  2. […] Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman | “Bergman’s newest book is fascinating, and she has certainly proven herself a talented author in short fiction. Though I enjoyed some of the stories more than others, I finished thinking Bergman accomplished her goal.” […]

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