In our celebrity-obsessed era, Megan Mayhew Bergman’s second short-story collection really hits home. Narrated from the perspectives of sisters, friends and lovers, Almost Famous Women (Scribner, $25) examines the lives of real women we almost knew. Born of history and steeped in emotional truth, these fictional stories will break your heart.
There’s the illegitimate daughter of poet Lord Byron, Allegra, who was abandoned as a feisty toddler in 1821. Left in a strict Italian convent, she never stopped asking for her father. There’s Dolly Wilde, a writer—and World War I veteran suffering post-traumatic stress disorder—who could never measure up to her talented uncle, Oscar Wilde. There’s Norma Millay, sister of celebrated poet, Vincent Millay. There’s jazz trumpeter, Tiny Davis. There’s actress Butterfly McQueen.
Lesser-known women are featured here, too. Daisy and Violet Hilton are Siamese twins who were once celebrated for their spectacle and song. They’ve become “two old showgirls bagging groceries at the Sack & Save,” who are still joined at the hip—physically and in every other way—at Daisy’s deathbed.
Beyond their brushes with fame, Bergman’s characters are full of hurt and want, regret and hope. Bergman’s a master of prose, but it’s the way she weaves deep honesty (while avoiding easy sentimentality) throughout these stories that makes this book so worthy.