A review of the short story collection Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman
In the notes at the end of this book, author Megan Mayhew Bergman informs us that, “The stories in this collection are born of fascination with real women whose remarkable lives were reduced to footnotes.” She also says that she’s “fascinated by risk taking and the way people orbit fame.” Bergman herself has taken a risk by writing a collection of short stories, but I think she pulled it off without a hitch.
Reading just these two little snippets, you might already realize just how nicely Bergman writes, and that’s not even her fiction. In this collection of short stories, Bergman brings us into the lives and minds of women we’ve probably never heard of, although some of them have surnames that will ring more than one bell. For example, we have a Wilde and a Byron (direct relations), the Hilton twins (no relation, that I can tell) and a Millay (which only poetry lovers will recognize). However, all of the other names here have faded across the decades, and only aficionados of their various pursuits will find them the least bit familiar. This is part of what makes them all so fascinating, since any one of them would be an excellent subject for a full historical fiction novel on their own.
Of course, it could well be that this is just what makes this collection so special. Because each of these women (or girls) only appears in a single vignette, Bergman uses a small aspect of their lives to tantalize us with each peek. Moreover, in almost all of the stories, the focus isn’t on these “almost famous” women themselves, but rather on someone else who would normally have been a minor character. In this way, Bergman takes women who themselves orbited fame and tells their story from the viewpoint of someone who orbited these nearly illustrious women. For instance, we learn about Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter Allegra, from the viewpoint of a woman who cared for her in the convent where her parents placed her. In this way, Bergman describes the fleeting and delicate ripples that surrounded these lesser-known celebrities.
I hope you can agree with me that this concept is especially ingenious, but what makes these remarkable is the way that Bergman presents them to us. Bergman’s writing is ethereal, gentle, and mysterious, with poetic passages that virtually caress her readers. At the same time, her stories are both accessible and inviting, both because of and despite how compellingly unusual these women were. To think we get all this from a woman who, tells us in her notes said she’s “uncomfortable writing historical fiction.” Well, she certainly fooled me, since there is absolutely nothing at all uneasy in her literary style. After all this, you won’t be surprised when I say that I must give this book a full five stars out of five and highly recommend it (and here’s hoping that this book brings Bergman the recognition that her subjects failed to attain).
“Almost Famous Women” by Megan Mayhew Bergman published by Scribner, release date January 6, 2015 is available for pre-order on Kindle from Amazon, Nook from Barnes & Noble, other eReader formats from Kobo, as an iBook or audiobook from iTunes, in hardcover from The Book Depository, or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an advance reader’s copy of this book via NetGalley.