cover image Almost Famous Women

Almost Famous Women

Megan Mayhew Bergman . Scribner, $25 (256p) ISBN 978-1-4767-8656-8

The conceit for Bergman's second collection (after Birds of a Lesser Paradise) is immediately appealing%E2%80%94short, punchy sketches of women either completely neglected by popular memory or better known for their association with men. Hence we have Lucia Joyce, daughter of James, in "Expression Theory," Norma Millay occupying the shadow of her sister, Vincent, in "Norma Millay's Film Noir Period," and the steady dissolution of Oscar Wilde's niece in "Who Killed Dolly Wilde?" Bergman's strongest stories concentrate on the historical moments in which her cast of characters (which includes conjoined twins, lady stunt motorcyclists, and smart-mouthed horn players) function as vectors, precisely because these women%E2%80%94lesbians, artists, and African Americans%E2%80%94remain outsiders in their own era. The larger-than-life boat racer "Joe" Carstairs makes her private island into a refuge for lost souls in "The Siege At Whale Cay"; the painter Romaine Brooks shuns even her servants in "Romain Remains"; and Butterfly McQueen repudiates both God and her most famous role, the maid from Gone With the Wind, in "Saving Butterfly McQueen." But for all its veneration for these women, the collection becomes repetitive%E2%80%94too many devoted friends narrating the story of their doomed and famous peers, too many aging burnt-out dames and, overall, too little access to the actual voice and psychology of its heroines. Still, even with weaker entries like the redundant Shirley Jackson impression "The Lottery, Redux," the collection is worth it for its feminist reclamation of the narrative that%E2%80%94for example%E2%80%94celebrates Byron and forgets his abandoned daughter. (Jan.)