Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Almost Famous Women is a collection of short stories that focus on amazing women, past and present. It begins with the dedication “For my girls,” which, though I’m sure it’s meant for specific girls, reads as inclusive, as if this project were dedicated to girls everywhere, reader included.
This collection is intriguing right from the start, as it begins with two epigraphs: “’Tis the white stag, Fame, we’re a hunting, bid the world’s hounds come to horn!” by Ezra Pound and “You can fill up your life with ideas and still go home lonely” by Janis Joplin. These two epigraphs create a lens through which we can read the stories that follow. Together, the quotes remind us of the allure of fame as well as its accompanying dissatisfaction. We know we’re going to learn about the darker side of celebrity lifestyle: the trials and tribulations faced by women, and Bergman’s stories do not disappoint.
This collection of historical fiction places actual women into imagined scenarios. Almost Famous Women is replete with photographs of the women in Bergman’s stories—when available—and culminates with a comprehensive “Author’s Note” that describes each woman’s story as well as Bergman’s experience researching her. In this section, the author states,
When forming these stories, I kept with me Henry James’s notion that all novelists need freedom, and I gave myself permission to experiment, and to be honest about my inspiration. These were stories I wanted to unlock from my imagination after a decade of reading and research… I did not want to romanticize these women or dwell in glittering places; I’m more interested in my characters’ difficult choices, or those made for them. I’m fascinated by risk taking and the way people orbit fame.
As a reader, I appreciated this contextualization. I’m a poet who tends to stray towards the idea that the work should stand for itself without requiring explanation, but in a complicated book that balances imagination with so many histories, this “Author’s Note” serves the work. It provides just enough insight into each story and, by coming at the end of the book, allows a reader to experience each story as it stands alone before offering some background.
The women of these stories—each somehow desiring recognition though the world wasn’t kind to her—are the connective tissue between each of them. These strong female characters are shown in simple situations: conjoined twins retired from the circus now bagging groceries in “The Pretty Grown-Together Children,” a lonely old painter who doesn’t trust her servants in “Romaine Remains,” and a musician of the first integrated swing band driving tour bus in “Hell-Diving Women” to name a few.
Bergman takes the opportunities presented in each story to relate back to this theme. Take these lines of dialogue between the artistic sisters in “Norma Millay’s Film Noir Period”:
They’re supposed to be the Furies, or as Vincent says the Erinyes, and her idea is to make otherworldly sounds. “We’re brutal avengers,” she reminds Norma. “The melody should be haunting and rise to a sort of onslaught. I want beautiful but frenzied.”
This scene works almost as a synecdoche for the entire collection. These characters have ideas to be otherworldly: haunting and wonderful. Bergman invites us into each woman’s home to see each other’s unique combination of beauty and frenzy.
This is not to say that Almost Famous Women is stagnant. Bergman works in a range of forms—from flash fiction to long prose—and point of view—changing perspective from first person to omniscient to first person plural. She finds the form and voice to most accurately celebrate each story.
In the end, I think “celebration” is the best word to describe this collection. Though it moves through sadness and violence, there is a sense of victory in each tale. Bergman acknowledges the historical omission in these lines from “Who Killed Dolly Wilde?”:
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.”
Almost Famous Women collects the stories of fierce, independent women. From Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter to Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sister, Bergman invests readers in the stories of lesser-known artists, showing us another side of the stories we believe we know. Bergman gives us both a new understanding of what our culture values and a peek at some strong women who followed their own paths regardless. The women in this collection span generations, and their stories are timeless. Through the celebration Bergman shares with us, we’re helping these women’s legacies survive. Almost Famous Women is a triumphant collection of historical fiction because it gives voice to those previously unheard, therefore giving them new life.
Megan Mayhew Bergman is the author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Best American Short Stories, New Stories from the South, McSweeney’s, Tin House, and Oxford American, among other publications. She writes a sustainability column for Salon and lives on a small farm in Vermont with her veterinarian husband, two daughters, and many animals.