Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Almost Famous Women has been highly lauded since it came out earlier this year. I thought to myself, well I like historical fiction, I’m a proud feminist woman, this may be an ideal book for me to get over my dislike of short stories! Plus, I adored the cover art and expected a fun, uplifting read because of it.
Only, it didn’t quite work out that way. See, as I’ve referenced before with Queen’s Gambit and Six Wives, I also have serious problems reading historical fiction based on real people because I then feel the need to creep on their lives i.e. read a biography or memoir as a follow-up. In this case, since the women were “almost famous,” I resorted to Wikipedia after every story to gain a better understanding of who I was reading about. I probably recognized a third of the names, and knew barely more than that about only one individual. Which was frustrating – the stories would’ve been more enjoyable if each started or ended with a brief bio of the woman/women involved.
The stories themselves weren’t bad, they just didn’t stay with me, with the exception of the first, “The Pretty, Grown-Together Children,” about conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton past their prime performing time. It had a tragic American Horror Story vibe, though less bloodshed and no clowns. Also moving was “The Internees,” a brief look at the women interned at Bergen-Belsen in 1945 as their retrieve their feminine identity through liberation and lipstick, while the most imaginative was a dystopian homage to Shirley Jackson, “The Lottery, Redux.”
A few stories are interestingly interconnected, with characters like Dolly, wild neice of Oscar Wilde, and lesbian heiress Joe Carstairs referencing each other. Others, such as “Hazel Eaton and the Wall of Death” and “Hell-Diving Women,” seem abrupt and a little misplaced. Overall, I was less inspired and intrigued than I’d hoped by many of these characters – though real, they came across as caricatures at points.
While I admire the idea and the writing style, I think the execution of the content was flawed. There wasn’t enough time to connect with these women. Like the snapshots at the beginning of each chapter, we only see fragments of them in time, and I would’ve appreciated learning more about the complexities of their lives and why the author chose to tell their tales.