Published by Scribner on Jan. 6, 2015
Genres: Historical Fiction, Short Stories
Buy on The Book Depository
I first read Megan Mayhew Bergman in 2012, when her debut short story collection, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, came out. I really enjoyed the way Bergman wrote about the relationships humans have with animals, and I was very excited when I heard she would be releasing a new book in early 2015. And my anticipation ramped up even more when I learned it would be called Almost Famous Women! Stories about women on the fringes of history are one of my kryptonites, and this collection hits the nail right on the head.
Almost Famous Women breathes life into the stories of women who have almost been forgotten. We meet a declining Dolly Wilde; Lorde Byron’s illegitimate daughter, Allegra; a once-famous pair of conjoined twins; Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sister, Norma; and a member of the first all-girl, integrated swing band.
Instead of writing a traditional review for this book, I thought I’d mix things up and share five things about it that I thought were special.
1. The stories of these women are presented from unexpected perspectives. Bergman doesn’t portray most of her subjects in their prime; we see many of them decades after history has forgotten about them. It’s a fascinating reminder that once someone’s five minutes are up, they are still there in the world, struggling to get by. Other “almost famous women” are seen through the eyes of lovers, friends, family, and caretakers.
2. Readers get to pop momentarily into the lives of women they may have previously read about in passing. In particular, fans of Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl will be fascinated by the story “Who Killed Dolly Wilde,” in which a friend reflects on the end of the life of Dolly Wilde, Oscar Wilde’s niece and the inspiration for Johanna’s alter-ego in Moran’s novel.
3. It introduces readers to icons they may not have known existed, like painter Romaine Brooks, speedboat racer M.B. “Joe” Carstairs, and motorcycle stunt rider Hazel Eaton. After reading their stories, I couldn’t help but want to learn more about these women. Much Wikipedia searching occurred.
4. The writing is beautiful and insightful.
“Maybe the world has been bad to its great and unusual women. Maybe there wasn’t a worthy place for a female hero to live out her golden years, to be celebrated as the men had been celebrated, to take from that celebration what she needed to survive.”
5. It’s fun to spot the connections between the stories! Not all of the stories are connected, but characters from some of the pieces make appearances in others, and keeping an eye out for how some of the women’s histories overlap is like playing literary Where’s Waldo.
Almost Famous Women is a really wonderful collection that anyone with an interest in the largely-ignored stories of women in history should read. It started out a bit slowly for me, but I was hooked after a few stories! It comes together really well as a collection, and each story is lovely and unexpected.
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