Sometimes the coincidental order of my reading list creates fascinating book pairings—books that when read together, illuminate and complement one another. I recently read Megan Mayhew Bergman’s historical story collection, ALMOST FAMOUS WOMEN, for a book club. Then a friend lent me Rebecca Miller’s modern story collection, PERSONAL VELOCITY. When brought together, their female characters, separated by many decades, spoke to one another in unexpected and illuminating ways.
ALMOST FAMOUS WOMEN takes little-known historical figures—like Dolly Wilde, niece of Oscar and Norma, younger sister of Edna St. Vincent Millay—and spins tales around them. This collection is stunning in its variety and imagination. Many of these women were contemporaries of one another so, in the stories as in life, they sometimes intersect in unexpected ways. These are women who have been through terrible things and have come out on the other side, alive but struggling.
My favorite story, “The Siege at Whale Cay,” focuses on Joe Carstairs, a female heiress who rules her private island like a queen, or a tyrant. Her story is told through the eyes of her current lover, Georgie. Joe is a fascinating and layered character. She is tough and quick tempered but she’s deeply damaged, scarred by her time as an ambulance driver during WWI. She’s controlling of her everyone in her life but can be tender. She’s like the badass lesbian Gatsby I never knew I needed and I wish I could read a whole novel about her. Many of the characters are like this—their stories are perfectly bite-sized and left me itching to research and read more about their real lives.
Taken alongside ALMOST FAMOUS WOMEN, the women in PERSONAL VELOCITY are unmistakably modern. The characters share a sense of emotional trauma with the women in Bergman’s collection, but Miller’s protagonists seem to have more edge, a kind of strength and independence that is refreshing.
There’s Greta, a cookbook editor who has tried to settle down into a comfortable but mediocre life with a husband who will never leave her and a job that pays the bills. But when she is chosen to edit the sophomore novel of a literary icon, the drive and ambition she has tried to suppress take over and she is unsure if she can continue with her current life. These women are well-crafted and relatable; I saw pieces of myself in many of them. Miller’s prose is full of lush, detailed descriptions; her stories are wonderfully visual.
Many of the women in these stories aren’t exactly likeable, but this made them all the more realistic. Women don’t need to be likable, they just need to survive in the set of circumstances they’ve been given. This is what unites them, historical and modern, famous and obscure: their will to live another day and carve a place for themselves in the world. The lives of these characters, separated by decades (sometimes centuries), echo one another in their sharp take on the female experience. Miller and Bergman’s women are the kinds of characters that will live in your imagination for a long time.