Title: The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna
Author: Juliet Grames
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
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.
This book is a fairly long read but worth every word the reader invests in it. It’s a slow building saga through Stella’s life from birth, to the end, and many ‘almost’ deaths inbetween.
I loved the feeling of a kind of ‘fate’ within its pages, as we learn how a very small change could have meant Stella didn’t survive, but the actual narrative tells how Stella did, somehow, survive the many near-misses – from being trampled by a pig to jumping to her death out of a window.
Stella and her family live in a poor Italian village, trying to make ends meet with a truly horrible father and many complications. They end up in America, and I hugely enjoyed the story of how they made a life there, but not easily, and the historical elements of the story paint a vivid picture of being an Italian immigrant in 1950’s America. There are some really shocking parts which feel dark, to be honest, but the author keeps it as non-graphic as can be, when discussing disturbing topics. However, I still felt a true sense of rage, sadness and frustration at various points in Stella’s difficult life – and funnily enough, almost all had the root cause of a man wanting to control her. I found it difficult to read at times, but that only reinforced what a powerful novel this is.
It’s hard to sum up exactly why this novel is so enchanting. It might be because of the great characters, vivid setting (The Italian village in the mountains where Stella grew up, and always felt like home to her, really drew me in as it felt so beautifully described) or perhaps the feeling of foreboding in knowing, as the reader, that danger to Stella seems to be lurking in even the most unexpected places. Either way, I really enjoyed this read and would encourage anyone to give it a go – and stick with it, although it can feel a little slow in parts, the end result when is so worth it!
Many thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for providing a copy of this book on which I chose to write an honest and unbiased review.