Book review: Almost Famous Women - engaging portraits

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 January, 2015, 10:20pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 January, 2015, 10:20pm

Almost Famous Women
by Megan Mayhew
Bergman Scribner

The women in Megan Mayhew Bergman's vivid new 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 fade, what's left is disappointment, bitterness and bravado.

"We've got something left to offer the world," one performer insists, but her twin sister is sceptical: 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 they're conjoined twins makes them a curiosity. But they're not important. Not anymore.

But to Bergman, author of the terrific 2012 collection, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, these 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 these "real women whose remarkable lives were reduced to footnotes". In Almost Famous Women, she has imagined their hopes, fears and dreams and created stories so intriguing you'll wish they are novels (in a twist, she includes an updated, dystopian retelling of Shirley Jackson's The Lottery).

Twins Violet and Daisy in 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 exploited, 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. Artist Romaine Brooks is trapped with her memories in a villa in Fiesole, Italy, unable to work. Dolly Wilde's addictions have diminished her, even to those who love her. Cocky speedboat racer Joe Carstairs in The Siege at Whale Cay seems to have it all - fame, money, famous friends and lovers, even an island. But during a days-long party at Joe's mansion, her lover Georgie begins to understand why her presence in Joe's life will be fleeting.

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, daughter of James Joyce).

Through these engaging stories, Bergman revives these often troubled spirits with 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.