book review: Almost Famous Women

almost famous women

Almost Famous Women: stories By Megan Mayhew Bergman.
Scribner| January 2015.|256 pages |$25.00| ISBN: 978—1-4767-8656-8

Brilliant concept and exquisitely written. This short story collection focuses on intriguing, bold and remarkable women from history. It’s edgy historical fiction. These women lived life as they chose to live it which likely made them misfits and outliers during their lifetimes.

Author Megan Mayhew Bergman envisioned the voices and back-stories for some truly unique women. She conducted extensive research and utilized her extraordinary imagination and creativity. She gets into the psyches of these women. She provides a voice. She imagines their hopes, dreams, desires, triumphs and disappointments. She plays around with point-of-view. It’s all exhilarating and works amazingly well in this format. There’s brilliance, heartache and triumph throughout these pages.

Included are the tragic stories about Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter and Oscar Wilde’s niece. Other stories tackle the final years of Gone with the Wind actress Butterfly McQueen; the heyday of daredevil and motorcycle trick-rider Hazel Eaton and interracial girl band the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.

In “The Pretty, Grown-Together Children” Mayhew Bergman writes of the conjoined Hilton sisters, Violet and Daisy–a side-show act for many years. One twin married, the other wasn’t allowed. Daisy recalls their story. How they were discovered. How they lived. How they were individual women but shared many aspects of the same body. “Our voices could be like one. I could feel hers in my bones, especially when she sang—a strong quicksilver soprano. We were attached at the hips and shared blood, but no vital organs. Four arms, four legs—enough to make a man give a second look.” These women remained mostly positive despite their circumstances. “There were no secrets. Imagine: you could say nothing, do nothing, eat nothing, touch nothing, love nothing without the other knowing.”

Cross-dressing Standard Oil heiress Joe Carstairs races boats and romances women in “The Siege at Whale Cay.” Told by her live-in lover: “What exhausted Georgie about Joe’s guests was that they were all-important. And important people made you feel not normal, but unimportant.”

In the tempered, melodramatic story “Norma Millay’s Film Noir Period,” the author creates a scenario for Norma Millay who lived at her sister’s estate for decades. Norma worked as a successful stage actress for quite some time. In the shadows? Jealous of her successful sister, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. Unknown. Modern day example perhaps J. Lo and her sister Linda Lopez, a well-known New York disc jockey. “Norma curls next to her sister in the chair, as she often does, wriggling one arm behind Vincent’s back and laying a cheek on her bony shoulder. When she breathes in, her sister’s claret-colored hair falls across her face, and she feels deep love tinged with resentment, like the pure ice leaching red dye from the river.”

“A High-Grade Bitch Sits Down for Lunch” depicts the resilient and determined Beryl Markham, the first certified horse trainer in Africa. She’s struggling financially to start her new venture: “She never ate much. Meager eating was good for keeping her figure, and her figure was an asset, on a horse and in the bedroom. She wanted to look good in clothes and out of them.”

Rating: ****/5

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Simon and Schuster.

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