Books

Book review

‘Almost Famous Women’ by Megan Mayhew Bergman

In her second story collection, “Almost Famous Women,” Megan Mayhew Bergman compassionately illuminates the singular lives of female characters with tangled relationships to fame and greatness. Many of the women featured in these 13 stories are spectacles of sorts, idiosyncratic individuals that attract the public’s attention for one reason or another. They go fast. They live fast. They reside on the margins of conventional life, often leaving them lonely and isolated within their own versions of regret and heartbreak.

A part of the appeal of this new collection is how Bergman draws on the personal histories of real-life individuals for inspiration: Daisy and Violet Hilton (conjoined twins); M.B. “Joe” Carstairs, an oil heiress; Hazel Eaton, a daredevil motorcyclist; Romaine Brooks, an American portrait painter; Allegra Byron, the illegitimate daughter of Lord Byron; Lucia Joyce, James Joyce’s daughter, among others. Reproductions of black-and-white photographs of each woman (in the case of Allegra Byron, a toddler) at the beginning of each story provide a degree of visual footing, and also a point from which Bergman jumps off, fictionally speaking, as she explores the emotional terrain of these characters at specific pivots in their lives.

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. Ironically, on the edges of some of these stories, more recognizable celebrities — such as Marlene Dietrich, Oscar Wilde, and Harry Houdini — orbit.

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Like her critically acclaimed debut collection, “Birds of a Lesser Paradise,” Bergman’s latest stories feature graceful prose charged with knowingness and certitude. The opening story, “The Pretty, Grown-Together Children” depicts the checkered lives of Daisy and Violet Hilton. “Back in the RKO cafeteria days, we had floor-length raccoon coats, matching luggage, tortoiseshell combs, and high-end lipstick,” Bergman writes at the height of the conjoined twins’ career. “We took taxis. We traveled, kissed famous men. We’d been on film. The thirties, forties, even the fifties. Those had been our decades. We had thrived.” The narrative nimbly charts the ups and downs of the twins’ adventures until they’re living in a shabby, single-wide trailer in Aberdeen, Scotland. By the story’s end, the reader is left with the humanity, rather than the oddity, of these sisters.

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“The Autobiography of Allegra Byron” steps further back in time with the fictional re-telling of the title character’s short life in a Catholic convent in Bagnacavallo, Italy, during the early 1800s. The story is told from the first-person perspective of Allegra’s caretaker, a young unnamed nun who arrives at the abbey after losing both her baby and husband to typhus. The intimate intertwining of loss, grief, and rekindled motherly love is authentically drawn throughout the story. Bergman writes when the protagonist is assigned to the wing of disturbed girls after taking Allegra on a forbidden excursion: “When I lay in bed at night, I could still picture the eyes of my newborn daughter, freshly and forever close, her eyelashes long and lush, her skin yellowed, her life abbreviated. Her eyes, at death, were certainly more peaceful than those of the girls I cared for, their breastbones protruding from thin gowns, their gnarled hands reaching toward the invisible.”

A handful of these stories slip by in a few pages — including a fleeting vignette about daredevil Hazel Eaton and an abbreviated story about Lucia Joyce locked in an insane asylum. These shorter pieces offer less substance and satisfaction.

In “Who Killed Dolly Wilde?” Bergman writes: “Maybe the world had been bad to its great and unusual women. Maybe there wasn’t a worthy place for the 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.”

Thanks to Bergman’s assured writing, many of these women — fictional and historical — will burn bright in one’s mind well after reading these fine stories.

S. Kirk Walsh writes for The San Francisco Chronicle and The New York Times Book Review, among other publications. She can be reached at skirk.walsh@
gmail.com
.