The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna
by Juliet Grames
Genre: Historical Fiction, Cultural
Length: 464 Pages
Release date: May 7, 2019
Publisher: Ecco Press
In this stunning debut novel, a young woman tells the story behind two elderly sisters’ estrangement, unraveling family secrets stretching back a century and across the Atlantic to early 20th century Italy
For Stella Fortuna, death has always been a part of life. Stella’s childhood is full of strange, life-threatening incidents—moments where ordinary situations like cooking eggplant or feeding the pigs inexplicably take lethal turns. Even Stella’s own mother is convinced that her daughter is cursed or haunted.
In her rugged Italian village, Stella is considered an oddity—beautiful and smart, insolent and cold. Stella uses her peculiar toughness to protect her slower, plainer baby sister Tina from life’s harshest realities. But she also provokes the ire of her father Antonio: a man who demands subservience from women and whose greatest gift to his family is his absence.
When the Fortunas emigrate to America on the cusp of World War II, Stella and Tina must come of age side-by-side in a hostile new world with strict expectations for each of them. Soon Stella learns that her survival is worthless without the one thing her family will deny her at any cost: her independence.
In present-day Connecticut, one family member tells this heartrending story, determined to understand the persisting rift between the now-elderly Stella and Tina. A richly told debut, The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna is a tale of family transgressions as ancient and twisted as the olive branch that could heal them.
My thanks to Ecco Press for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher.
“This is the story of Mariastella Fortuna the Second, called Stella, formerly of Ievoli, a mountain village of Calabria, Italy, and lately of Connecticut, in the United States of America. Her life stretched over more than a century, and during that life she endured much bad luck and hardship. This is the story how she never died.”
This book was an absolute dream. Let me get the negative out of the way first and say that the only thing that’s keeping me from rating it a full five stars is that the pacing sometimes felt a bit slow. That being said, the writing style was phenomenal and Grames really made these characters feel intimately real.
This novel is the life story and family history of Stella Fortuna, with a series of near-death instances providing the backbone of the plot. Stella was born in a rural Italian village about a hundred years ago. Her father is about as useless as can be, but her mother loves her dearly and Stella is fiercely protective of her younger sister, Tina (at least when they are young.) The story follows the family from their origins in Italy to the end of Stella’s life in the US, long after her family emigrates on the cusp of WWII.
This may sound odd, but one of my favorite things about this book was Grames’ choice of narrator; the book is told from the point of view of a descendant of Stella. The narrator’s voice is understated for most of the book, but there are moments when her personality shines through, and I think telling the story from the point of view of one of Stella’s distant family members was a perfect choice. She is distant enough from the events of the story that she doesn’t seem to have a vested interest in skewing her telling, but she is close enough to Stella as a person that there’s a real sense of emotional connection.
Grames explores Stella’s difficult transition in America so convincingly. Dragged across an ocean by a father she never even loved, Stella feels cut off from a vital part of herself. What was supposed to feel like a new beginning simply leaves her feeling unmoored, and it’s not long before her parents are rushing to marry her off. Having grown up witnessing her father’s treatment of her mother, the very last thing Stella wants is a husband.
I spent a lot of time reading this book thinking of how different things would have been for Stella had she been born in another generation or another place. Living in that time period and having the extra pressure as an immigrant to fall in line with what’s considered “acceptable” behavior for a woman, there’s a great tragedy in knowing that in another time, Stella could have lived the life she wanted without scrutiny.
The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna is a lovely novel and an excellent choice for those who enjoy reading historical fiction and family sagas.
Content warnings: rape, sexual abuse of children
Thank you so much for reading! Let’s talk in the comments! Tell me about a novel you love that follows the main character’s entire life story.