The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna is the debut novel by Juliet Grames. First a word about Grames who I have met a few times because she works for Soho Press. Back in 2017, she was a part of the RUSA panel at ALA Annual entitled, "Growing Readership Through Diversity." You can click here to read a recap of that program and even listen to it.
Grames lays into the entire publishing industry in this talk while still admitting her status a white woman. But Grames also backs up her beliefs with actions and was part of the team that launched diverse bestsellers like Love Hate & Other Filters and The Widows of Malabar Hill into the world, titles that have gone on to sell many copies and win numerous awards and citations.
So when Grames emailed me a few months ago and asked if I would read her debut novel, I didn't hesitate. She is a person I like personally and admire professionally. Also, as a member of a large Italian family myself [one side Philly Italian, the other side New York Jews-- our huge family gatherings are loud and boisterous, but also full of love], I was excited to read this one.
Before I get too far ahead of myself here is the book description from Goodreads which also contains a lot of good appeal:
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.I am happy to report that this book delivered in every way promised above. It is a perfectly rendered, multigenerational, immigrant, historical saga mostly set in the 20th Century. But it is also a story about a woman who refuses to conform, even when it appears to outsiders that she has. It is a relaistically complicated story of a large family and specifically the lives of the women. It is what appears to be a traditional family saga story, and yet there is much more hidden in there.
That extra nuance is what I want to focus on next. It is Grames desires to understand the complicated relationship between the female members of her own family that drove her to write this story. And, although it is fiction [she includes a note about that in the back of the book], because her inspirations were real people, she really dives into these women, their life choices, and how it all affects their relationships to each other and their families. But also the preifereal women. We see a variety of life choices, some chosen and some forced.
The entire book is framed by a character, much like Grames herself, the granddaughter of Stella, who is doing the family research to find out what is truth and fiction, to try to pry the details from the historical record to fill in the missing pieces, the parts the women in the family won't share. While this character only breaks into talking directly to the reader directly a few times, those times are important. One of my favorites is when this narrator honestly breaks down her feelings about the life Stella had to endure, wishing she didn't have to live it, wishing she could have kept her vow to never have children, and yet, all the while acknowledging that without Stella giving in to society and its pressures on women of the time, she, the narrator, would have never been born. This is a great example at the nuance here, of what makes this an excellent example of a historical family saga.
Also the frame of the deaths-- all 7 or 8 of them-- is wonderful. It adds a layer of magic to the story, a magic that may or may not be a ghost, a magic that by the end may have been revealed to be something quite the opposite of magic, something much more base and earthly. And yet, it is all up to you, the reader to decide what you want to believe [which I loved].
The reader is looking for each new death and the narrator knows this. She dangles them in front of us from the title and in the opening pages. She keeps dangling them as sections of the book have pages announcing it is time for another almost death. She winks and nods and prods us through the book. But all the while making us love Stella, despite her faults. Making us care about the family-- warts and all, good seeds and bad ones. Making us invested in their lives, their travels and travails, and their journeys as if they were those of our own loved ones.
We feel Stella's pain. We get attached to many of the characters. We root for her to be able to break free of the bonds that society placed on women of her age. And we end knowing that while some things have gotten better for women, somethings haven't changed.
We see Stella's life from birth, to 95 years old. Ironically, the book ends before her death, although we know it will come soon; this I also loved. It would have been trite to end with her death. We see and hear about other deaths and funerals, but not Stella's or Tina's. And if we did, I would not have enjoyed this book as much.
How do you fell when you finish this book? It's weird. I loved the book. I loved reading it. I loved spending time with the characters. But at the end, you just are. You aren't happy or sad. You just feel like you understand "Family" a little better. You will look at the elders in your family a little differently. You will want to ask them to share life stories. And you will hug your loved ones a little tighter.
This is a page-tuner kind of saga, that has a great frame and very well developed characters. It will memorize you and make you appreciate all of the women who came before you. There is a strong woman at the center of it all-- strong physically and mentally. There is the complicated relationship between sisters at the core. There is high drama and an increasing pace. Anyone who likes historical stories of families-- especially immigrant to first generation ones-- will love this book. Others who like to read about women who refused to be pigeon-holed will also want to read this.
This is a book for readers who are part of a family, no matter their racial or ethnic background. So therefore, it is a book for everybody.
Three Words That Describe This Book: family saga, compelling, strong female
Readalikes: Any book which takes a look at strong women who want to forge their own paths is a great option here. Examples: Fates and Furies by Groff, Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn, The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. I could keep going. There are a lot of books like this. You get the point. This one will be popular and for a wide audience.
This book also reminded me a lot of Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, which is a family saga set in Japan during the 20th century and follows the family of a young South Korean immigrant woman through her life. These two books make a good pair. Click here for my longer review of Pachinko and for more readalikes.
Also, books about immigrant women across generations by authors like Amy Tan, Isabel Allende, and Lisa See