2017 Common Reader
Almost Famous Women
by Megan Mayhew Bergman
by Shannin Schroeder
2017 Convention Chair
Southern Arkansas University
Make sure to carve some time out of your summer reading schedule for our 2017 Common Reader, Megan Mayhew Bergman’s short story collection Almost Famous Women, which details the colorful lives of these intrepid women. Read on for our 2017 Convention Chair’s brief introduction to this thought-provoking book.
In Almost Famous Women, Megan Mayhew Bergman draws our eye not only to the nearly famous but also to the women surrounding them, ancillary characters who seem stranded in their lives, adjacent to title figures who define who they are and how much they can love or be loved. In choosing to approach her eponymous women through these outside (almost exclusively female) voices, Bergman challenges our attempts to understand the complicated women around whom the action revolves.
The unnamed narrator of “Who Killed Dolly Wilde” says, “[S]he was a dying woman, in many ways. There was the cancer, of course, but also the sort of dying that happens when the beautiful person you once were wears off and all that’s left is someone frightened and ugly, this hard and cruel kernel of a self that’s difficult to look at.” Bergman’s words resonate for many of the women she revisits. Artists, entrepreneurs, self-made women, her characters simultaneously cling to an imitation of celebrity and reveal the flaws in the notion of notoriety itself. While the author does not shy away from death or dying, in their last throes, her characters are not any more or less approachable or likeable: instead, they are reduced to their base natures—hurting those who care for and about them.
Interspersed among these famous figures are the softer, but no less tragic, stories: works that make us ache for the conjoined sisters incapable of individual autonomy, the daredevil who gives up her daughter, or the Holocaust prisoners called back into womanhood by a hint of luxury. The most heartbreaking character may be the youngest, Allegra Byron, whose short life is documented by the postulant who watches it cut short. Of the convent’s image of the Virgin Mary, the narrator says, “You could tell she hadn’t enough mercy for all of us.” Figures we might expect to be most compassionate, from family members to religious icons, are found lacking. The collection instead leaves the burden of mercy to the tangential women who will bear away the extraordinary, complicated secrets of the titular characters.
Almost Famous Women questions whether it is a cruel world that renders the women in her stories knowable in limited ways, or whether the women themselves have held something back, something essential, from their friends, families, and lovers. The distance Bergman provides through her narrative style leaves readers wishing these women had been better known . . . to her readers, at least, if not to the public that could have made them famous.
Once you have finished reading Almost Famous Women, take some time to peruse these interviews with Megan Mayhew Bergman and learn more about her desire not to write these stories, her personal battles with the historical fiction genre, and which of these characters she loves most.
The Regents' Common Reader Awards provide an opportunity for individual chapters to organize and host a local event or activity based on Almost Famous Women. Chapter members do not need to attend the convention to apply. Contact your Regent and you may receive $100 for your event or activity. View application guidelines.
Awards of up to $600 will be given at the international convention for critical essays or other genres of work that deal with the common reader. To be eligible, students indicate on the convention submission form that their work is in the common reader category (presentation type).