The women in Megan Mayhew Bergman’s vivid new story collection live just outside the limelight. Once, they had heydays, of a sort: on stage; on screen; on the battlefield; in front of a canvas. But as their modest lights faded, what was left was disappointment, bitterness and bravado.
“We’ve got something left to offer the world,” one performer insists, but her twin sister has reason to be skeptical: The glory days, such as they were, are over, and they are merely “two old showgirls bagging groceries at the Sack and Save in Aberdeen.” The fact that they’re conjoined twins makes them a curiosity (“I jes’ want to see it walk, the kids would whisper”). But they’re not important. Not anymore.
But to Bergman, author of the terrific story collection Birds of A Lesser Paradise, these forgotten, eccentric, determined women are captivating and worthy of investigation. Some became notable for their works: a speedboat racer; the leader of an all-female, integrated swing band; actress Butterfly McQueen from Gone With the Wind. Others were better known for their infamous relatives: Oscar Wilde’s niece; Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sister; Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter.
Bergman is fascinated by them all, these “real women whose remarkable lives were reduced to footnotes.” In Almost Famous Women, she has taken necessary fictional liberties with them, imagined their hopes and fears and dreams and created stories that are so intriguing you wish they were full-length novels (in a twist, she also includes an updated, dystopian retelling of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery). At the very least, many of the names will send you scrambling for Google to learn more.
“I wanted to talk about these women,” Bergman writes. “I daydreamed about their choices as I was building my own life, one that seemed tame in comparison. I did not want to romanticize these women or dwell in glittering places; I’m more interested in my characters’ difficult choices, or those that were made for them.”
Twins Violet and Daisy in the haunting The Pretty, Grown-Together Children had no say in their fate: “Learn to love the attention. You don’t have a choice.” Prisoners of their own body (“Imagine: you could say nothing, do nothing, eat nothing, touch nothing, love nothing without the other knowing”) and often ill-used by those who exploit them, they carved out a modest living for awhile, but now they’re older, and Daisy is ailing. “One day soon,” she tells Violet, “you’ll walk out of here alone.”
Other women here are limited in different ways. Elderly painter Romaine is trapped with her memories in a villa in Fiesole, unable to work and looked after by a young man who dreams of escape — and how he can use Romaine to do so. Dolly Wilde’s addictions have diminished her, even to those who love her. Cocky speedboat racer Joe Carstairs in The Siege at Whale Cay would seem to have it all — fame, money, famous friends and lovers like Marlene Dietrich, even her own island. But during a days-long party at Joe’s mansion, her young lover Georgie begins to understand why her presence in Joe’s life will be fleeting.
The narrator of the tragic The Autobiography of Allegra Byron is a nun who has entered the convent after losing her husband and child. Longing for love, she is warned not to play favorites with the poet’s inconvenient child, who has been dumped at the convent and ignored by her father. But the nun, merely human, longs for connection. Her reward is slight, but it must be enough: “I knew that she would never love me, but I could delight, at least, in trust and familiarity.”
A few of the stories aren’t fleshed out enough to leave a strong impression, such as A High-Grade Bitch Sits Down for Lunch (about Beryl Markham) and Expression Theory (about dancer Lucia Joyce). When the characters come alive in the longer pieces, though, their relationships are fascinating. Norma Millay’s Film Noir Period examines Norma’s complicated rivalry with her poet sister, which could grow contentious (“What kind of ride is it, on my coattails? Is it good?” Vincent asks, only to apologize the next morning). But when Vincent dies, Norma sleeps in her bed, refuses to change anything in fear of more loss — “it might rob the place of her sister’s spirit.”
Through these engaging stories, Bergman revives these often troubled spirits with great compassion. “There is no one in the world like you,” Daisy reminds herself as the world gawks at her. Bergman’s stories remind us that’s also true for all of these remarkable women.
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.