Friday, February 20, 2015

"Almost Famous Women," by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Women who were a little bit famous. Women who were related to, or close to, someone actually famous. The organizing principle of Megan Mayhew Bergman’s collection of short stories, “Almost Famous Women” (Scribner, 2015), about real although mostly forgotten women, may sound like a gimmick, but the stories are effective not only because of their intriguing topics, but also because they stand strong as stories, regardless of the “fame” angle. The stories are fictional, but very believable. Each character is explored, even cherished, for her individuality, her vividness, her desire to "be someone,” to experience life fully. The protagonists include the poet Lord Byron’s young daughter Allegra, the actress Butterfly McQueen, the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sister Norma, the writer Oscar Wilde’s niece Dolly, and Violent and Daisy Hilton, two sisters joined at the hip. A small quibble I have is that one story is about the adventurer, aviatrix, and writer Beryl Markham, who is in fact quite famous, definitely more so than the women in the other stories. Some of the stories are quite sad; the one about Allegra comes to mind, as she was left in a convent orphanage as a small child, lived there for years, kept expecting to see her parents, but did not. Another pathetic case is that of the writer and painter Romaine Brooks, well known in her glory days in Paris, but now in declining health, querulous, bedroom-bound, and manipulated by those who take care of her. But all the stories burst with the oversized personalities of these very different but all strong and compelling women. Gender is certainly an issue, and we see how many of the characters were oppressed, repressed, and restricted, at various times in various ways, and yet they could not be completely kept down. I especially like the literary aspects of several of the stories, the ones about writers, or relatives of writers.

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