Reviewed by Vickie Fang
This is a book of so much loss. Megan Bergman has captured the struggles of women born too soon, fighting, often valiantly, to be themselves as time, and the world, pass them by. The most operative word in the title is “almost,” rather than “famous.” We can almost remember having heard of these women or someone like them anyway. They rise up in our consciousness like a childhood song we can’t quite put the words to. The characters almost manage to triumph over both their brutally indifferent environments and their own deeply flawed hearts. Sometimes even their loves almost seem like they will last. To read this book is to be in a continual constant state of agitation over what could have been and has instead just been missed.
Some of the characters are almost famous by virtue of having been born obviously different. The Pretty Grown Together Children opens with a picture of adult conjoined twins, one of whom is locked in a passionate kiss with her fiancé while her sister smiles at the camera. The caption reads: New York denies Violet Hilton, pictured with Daisy, a marriage license, on the grounds that it would be illegal to issue the license to two persons. Their story is one of childhood neglect, then early success on the vaudeville stages complete with “floor-length raccoon coats” with offers of marriage, only to wind up with alone, barely able to pay the rent.
But now we were two old showgirls bagging groceries at the Sack and Save in Aberdeen. There were no more husbands, no boyfriends. Just fat women and their dirty nosed children pointing fingers in the grocery line. . . I never met so many mean-hearted women in my life. . . Our knuckles hurt from loading bags. Our knees swelled from all the standing.
This level of complaint— indignant, easy to understand, concrete — pervades the story, together with the often fascinating details of their survival. Only at the end do we get a close up view of the grotesque humiliation they suffered for their performances, and that is quickly passed over again as one sister offers the other her own gruff version of hope. No time is spent on any actual self pity.
While this is the only story featuring physical deformity, all of the women are equally fated to be different. Many of them are lesbians. They are too talented, too high spirited, unable to lead normal lives no matter how much they suffer for their differences. And for most of them, time is running out. Some are facing “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 self that’s difficult to look at.” Make no mistake, though. That hard and cruel kernel was always there, just as Daisy and Violet were always conjoined. They seem to escape their fundamental condition; they almost manage, but in the end, they don’t, and they don’t accept defeat either.
Cancerous and aging, the once-glamorous Dolly Wilde’s “intensity made people uncomfortable. She wanted things, conversation, money, drugs, a hot meal, sex.” A friend tries to explain why the maid will hardly speak to her. “She’s intimidated by you,” I said, but the right word would have been horrified, because the young woman had happened upon Dolly in various states of undress, wretched hangovers, and what could only be described as fits of madness.” Dolly herself writes, “I don’t waste time doing practical things hoping the world will be good to me when I’m older. Tell me Joe, do you think the world is still good to women like us?”
Ruby, a second-tier musician, who drives the band bus and only gets to play when someone else is sick, would have a hard enough life under any circumstances but she is also Black, working with an integrated band in the South (The International Sweethearts), and in love with another female musician. She’s not from a famous family, and she’s never had a maid to intimidate or horrify. She fills her life with practical things, hoping to survive. “You’re not a crying woman, she tells herself, just as her own mother used to. You’re a patient woman. Hardworking. So get out there and work.” She takes her victories where she can. In this case, in a jail cell. “Got what I wished for, Ruby thinks, leaning against the cinder-block wall, which is strangely cool against her back. I’m finally alone with my girl. Got her all to myself.”
Historical fiction is has a particular advantage for tragedy. We know that we’re hearing the voices of people who have no future and seeing worlds that cannot be changed. In Almost Famous Women, we also see the hope, the furious greed, and the determination of women who won’t stop fighting even though they know the game is rigged against them. It’s the kind of book that gets to you. You wish you could change things for these women. You’re glad you at least got to know who they were.