Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman
Scribner, 2015; 256 pp
Reviewed by Megan Turner
“Georgie oriented herself, looking up occasionally at the faint lights on the island, the only thing that kept her from swimming out into the open sea. It felt good to scare Joe. To do what she wanted to do. To scare herself. To do the one thing she was good at, to dull all of her thoughts with the mechanics of swimming, the motion of kicking her feet, rotating her arms, cutting through the water, dipping her face into the warm sea and coming up for air, exerting herself, exhausting her body, giving everything over to heart, muscle, bone.”
Megan Mayhew Bergman has created a brilliant concept in her Almost Famous Women. Her collection of short stories centers on neglected, sometimes impoverished women found throughout history. Bergman’s book is smart but not in the way readers might expect. The women found in her stories are never pitied. Instead, they are portrayed for both their faults and strengths. Some of these women are victims; others refuse to be victimized. At times, the women in these pages can be exceedingly arrogant, spoiled, or disingenuous. What’s striking about these women is not how similar they are, but how unique and varied their voices become.
Each piece begins with a photograph and short biography of the real-life woman behind the story. For example, “The Pretty, Grown-Together Children,” shows a photo of conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet, who were denied a marriage license due to laws forbidding two women from marrying a single man. The story uses this photo as a jumping-off point, reimagining the lives of these women. Some of these stories are based in fact while others appear mostly fabricated.
Interestingly, the stories are generally told not from the perspective of the women portrayed but by other, equally marginalized characters. In “The Siege at Whale Cay,” Georgie depicts Joe Carstairs not only as “the fastest woman on water,” but also as a kind of totalitarian figure on the island, one who sometimes harshly manages her staff and treats her lovers as disposable.
Perhaps the saddest story in the collection, and one of my favorites, is “The Autobiography of Allegra Byron,” who is the illegitimate child of Lord Byron. Due to her difficult personality, Allegra is cast aside and sent to live in a convent in Italy. Despite the attention of one nun, Allegra develops a fever and dies at a very young age. Only the nun who tells the story seems to fully understand the potential lost.
There is also Buttefly McQueen, who famously played Prissy in Gone with the Wind. In real life, Butterfly was an atheist who donated her body to science. Her story is told by a young woman, Elizabeth. An Evangelical Christian at first, after meeting Butterfly, Elizabeth goes on to study biology, dissecting cadavers as part of her lab work.
Bergman writes: “The upperclassmen tell us we will struggle most not with intestines or livers but with the cadaver’s hands, genitals, and face—the things we see as inextricably human.” She later adds, “The scalpel is sharper than I imagined and the skin gives way easily […] I bend over, get closer. The bright light spares nothing.”
By the end of the collection, Bergman abandons the traditional structure of her stories and includes “The Internees,” which offers a short glimpse of the women who were liberated from Bergen-Belsen in 1945. She also includes “The Lottery, Redux,” a retelling of the Shirley Jackson’s original story.
Although the short stories in Almost Famous Women are unique to each other, there is also a thread that runs through them. These stories offer complexity and reveal what it means to be a woman. Much like the character in her “Saving Butterfly McQueen” story, Bergman’s stories dissect. They look for what we might have in common underneath the scalpel and “bright light.”