06 January 2015

Almost Famous Women: Stories by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Summary from Goodreads:
From "a top-notch emerging writer with a crisp and often poetic voice and wily, intelligent humor" (The Boston Globe): a collection of stories that explores the lives of talented, gutsy women throughout history.

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).

For my first book in 2015, I chose Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of the much-lauded (though still lurking in my TBR pile) Birds of a Lesser Paradise (I did, however, read the title story in a Best American Short Stories volume). This short volume contains an amazing collection of short stories about women who were fame-adjacent - Oscar Wilde's niece, Edna St. Vincent Millay's sister, James Joyce's daughter, Byron's daughter - or briefly famous - Beryl Markham, the Hilton twins, actress Butterfly McQueen, the women of the International Sweethearts, or the women liberated from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp (this story shows off a beautifully realized first-person plural narration). Bergman, with just a few sentences, creates vibrant portraits of the women that fame briefly elevates, chews up, and spits back out.  None of them have easy lives, either in reality or in the inner-life that Bergman imagines for them.  Absolutely stellar writing.

This is very short collection, so I hesitate to suggest that a story be removed, but as good as "The Lottery, Redux" is, it just does not fit with the other stories, in my opinion.  While all the other stories revolve around a real-life historical figure, "The Lottery, Redux" tangentially relates to the collection via the creation of a famous woman; The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. It is a wonderfully crafted story but it doesn't fit together with the other stories as they all relate to one another.  It's the last story in the collection, so it doesn't interrupt the flow of the stories.  But still such a great story.

I'd definitely recommend this for those looking for good short story collections.

Almost Famous Women is out today, January 6, from Scribner!

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