Only occasionally does a book come along that absolutely blows me away and which continues to tickle away at my consciousness long after I’ve put it down. This short story collection did just that. I am so grateful to Book Riot for singing its praises and to the publisher for providing me with a copy for review.
Firstly, what an incredible, unique, fascinating premise for a short story collection. Megan Mayhew Bergman takes a whole host of real, mostly unknown women from history and strips them bare before re-creating them, raising them up and bringing them into the spotlight. Indeed, as she herself says in the Author’s note at the end of the book: ‘The stories… are born of fascination with real women whose remarkable lives were reduced to footnotes’.
What the blurb says:
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.
Bergman is a truly masterful storyteller. I could not help but be completely caught up in each of these women’s lives as I devoured their stories. None of them are too long – in theory this means that you can dip into and out of the book with ease. In reality, for me, it meant I fell into the ‘just one more’ trap and finished the book in two sittings. I loved every single one of the stories and could write copiously about each, but I’ll limit myself to touching on the three that made the greatest impression and really hope that you discover them and the others yourself.
The collection opens with the story of British conjoined twins, Violet and Daisy Hilton (5 February 1908 – January 1969) – an immensely powerful opening story and one which forces the reader to really consider this condition from every uncomfortable angle. What happens when one twin falls in love and wants to have a relationship or get married? ‘There were no secrets. Imagine, you could say nothing, do nothing, eat nothing, touch nothing, love nothing without the other knowing’… The first night Martin and I slept together, Violet said the Lord’s Prayer eighteen times’. This is one of the longer stories in the collection and one which I just haven’t been able to get out of my head.
Next, we meet Marion Barbara ‘Joe’ Carstairs (1900 – 18 December 1993) – a wealthy British power boat racer known for her speed and her eccentric lifestyle. Her story is told by her girlfriend Georgie whose ‘God-fearing parents thought she was teaching swimming lessons on a private island. They didn’t know she’d spent the last three months shacked up with a forty-year-old womanizing heiress who stalked around her own private island wearing a machete across her chest, chasing shrimp cocktails with magnums of champagne every night’. Need I really say more? This story has all the lavish indulgence of The Great Gatsby, as well as the dissatisfaction, sadness and tragedy running beneath the surface – all in a wonderfully condensed short story. Just amazing.
The third story that really got under my skin with all its delicious Gothic intensity was that of Romaine Brooks, who Wikipedia tells me was born Beatrice Romaine Goddard (May 1, 1874 – December 7, 1970). She was an American painter who worked mostly in Paris and Capri. She specialized in portraiture and used a subdued palette dominated by the colour grey.
We meet Romaine as a very old woman, and her story is also told from an outside perspective – this time by Mario who works for her: ‘She’s feeble but threatening, and he has to take her seriously; he needs this job, and she knows it. He made the mistake of telling her. No one ever works for Romaine longer than six months. She’s too demanding, too proud, too suspicious… Romaine would rather die than compromise’. This is a story about deception, power and how power can shift. But can it ever shift completely?
Every single one of these stories made me think, consider or ruminate. A truly enriching reading experience and without doubt my first 5 star read of the year so far – also my first experience of Megan Mayhew Bergman; it certainly won’t be my last.
Almost Famous Women is currently only available in Hardcover. Completely worth it for yourself, or as a wonderful gift: Almost Famous Women: Stories