A gifted writer does more than create a compelling story that is pillared by characters with discernible heartbeats. Truly masterly authors stimulate a churning hunger, an epiphany that exceptional books exist in multitudes and are simply waiting to be devoured. Megan Mayhew Bergman’s short story collection, Almost Famous Women propelled me into one such frenzy.
I happen to have a natural predilection for short stories. I often find myself disappointed by the conclusions of longer works. After spending a large quantity of time with a group of characters, the timing never seems quite appropriate to cut ties. Conversely, short stories often clamor or glide to a much more satisfying end, and for me, the more ambiguous and off-beat the conclusion, the better. In this particular collection, there were a few stories with conclusions that were a bit clunky, but were overshadowed by the stories that terminated at the optimal moment.
The subject matter of Almost Famous Women is precisely what the title implies. It is a collection of stories that blend fictional situations and characters with the details of women whose stories have been somewhat lost in the shuffle of history. I personally had no prior knowledge of any of the women these stories are based on, and it really wasn’t necessary to enjoy the book. However, several of the stories did trigger a yearning for more knowledge, prompting a subsequent trip through an internet rabbit hole. On one such bender, I did uncover a minor grievance with the story “Expression Theory” which centers on Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce. The story is brief and explosive, yet still one of the weakest of the collection. The story becomes weaker yet when you realize the dolefully fascinating circumstances of Lucia Joyce’s life. It seems that there were so many other possible avenues the author could have explored that may have better served the story. This is one of the few stories where a bit of prior knowledge may benefit the reader.
Bergman’s character progression is remarkable throughout the book. In a matter of a few sentences she is able to create a kinship to her characters that isn’t easily shaken with the conclusion of the story. In the span of a few pages, Bergman is able to construct characters that are more compelling and multifarious than many that are developed throughout an entire novel. Most of the stories are written from the perspective of an individual close to the central figure, and this seems to be the best match for the subject matter. The first person narratives seem to be more poetic, but don’t quite pack the same punch as other stories in the collection.
Although nearly all of the stories in this collection are impeccable, there are a few that really stand out as champions. The story of Allegra Byron brilliantly intertwines the afflicted life of Lord Byron’s progeny with the narrative of a fictional caregiver. The story is so perfectly heart-wrenching that upon completion I had to take a full day’s hiatus from the book to mourn. This story highlights Bergman’s gift for intermingling a genius vision, a subtle character arc, and a perfectly constructed conclusion.
It cannot go unnoticed that the fulcrum of the collection is found in “Who Killed Dolly Wilde,” a story about Oscar Wilde’s exuberant niece. Bergman writes,
“Maybe the world had been bad to its great and unusual women. Maybe there wasn’t a worthy place for the female hero to live out her golden years, to be celebrated as the men had been celebrated, to take from that celebration what she needed to survive.”
Women, particularly of past eras, are somewhat forgiven their idiosyncrasies in youth, but as they age they are no longer indulged. Many of these women were deeply troubled in their later years, seemingly haunted by their inability to conform. The message seems to be that while men are celebrated for their aberrant behavior, women are punished. Bergman has successfully crafted the ode that these women deserved.
Another apex moment is found in “Hazel Eaton and the Wall of Death” the story of a young female daredevil. In this story Eaton ponders, “The sunrise is beautiful…but it will never be enough. She was questioning then, as she does now: what makes you empty and what makes you full?” The subjects of Bergman’s stories, for better or for worse, dared to explore this question to its end.
Cover image via Simon & Schuster.