Megan Mayhew Bergman readings | Quail Ridge Books, Raleigh | Wednesday, Apr. 6, 7 p.m. | Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill | Thursday, Apr. 7, 5:30 p.m.
Only one of the stories in Megan Mayhew Bergman’s new short story collection, How Strange a Season, takes place in North Carolina: “A Taste for Lionfish,” the story of Lily, a college student employed by a conservation organization, who travels to Alligator, North Carolina, to try and persuade coastal residents to incorporate lionfish, an invasive species, into their diet. It goes about how you’d expect: “You’re trying to tell these poor folks how to fix a rich folks’ problem,” a character bluntly tells Lily.
The other seven stories in the collection cast a wide geographic net, from Italy to Arizona, and lurch back in time; the years 1792 and 1979 both make appearances. But Bergman, who grew up in Rocky Mount and spent years in Raleigh and Durham in adulthood, evidences no shortage of love for the state, and the book bears an affectionate dedication to “My North Carolina Family.” This week, Bergman—who now teaches literature and environmental writing at Middlebury College in Vermont—is back locally in support of the new book, with stops at Quail Ridge Bookstore and Flyleaf Books. In-person readings have been slow to come back, since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, so events like these feel extra special.
Time and setting may vary in these stories but the characters have plenty in common: How Strange a Season is haunted by strong women in search of themselves. Or, maybe better put, the women in Bergman’s stories—strong-willed activists, artists, and athletes—have a grip on who they are but are less sure how to squeeze into a world shaped by men.
Climate change lurks like a specter, though not ornamentally; Bergman is a gifted, observant scribe of the natural world. Sex, regret, and desire run amok. (“It seemed to her that adulthood was a series of mundane years punctuated by transgressions and apologies,” one character thinks to herself.) Money also plays a strong hand, and most characters have the luxury of not wanting for it. (This isn’t a criticism: the affluence of some characters thrusts the needs of others into sharp relief, as with Marie, a Norwegian wet nurse who is drawn, conditionally, into the lives of a dysfunctional old-money family in the story “Indigo Run.”)
What these characters do long for, though, is purpose and home.
In “Indigo Run,” the novella-length story that anchors the collection, the older generation of a family is obsessed with sinking their teeth into the traditions of their ancestral South Carolina plantation, even if it makes them sick, while the youngest woman in the family believes she can only find her own sense of belonging by burning it all down. “Girls understand what home means in a way men don’t,” one character explains.
It’s a Southern Gothic story that takes a few pages to get into—it has no shortage of diversions, especially in the beginning—but once you do get into it you’ll be pulled in deep by its sensual, uneasy current. I was reminded, while reading, of Lauren Groff’s ambitious novel Fates and Furies, with its lyrical Southern sprawl and damaged characters hell-bent on a collision course.
In “Wife Days” a champion swimmer makes dark agreements with her wealthy husband, while in the surprising (and maybe a little uneven) “Workhorse” a heartsick floral artist has already separated from her husband and spends her days crafting an elaborate terrarium while trying to avoid the demands of another man, her father.
It’s the first story in the book, and the rare botanical flowers the artist seeks to cultivate are a perfect stand-in for the book’s rich themes. The flowers are beautiful and expensive but have to be coaxed into their environments. They’re only destined to thrive that way for a little while.
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