Title: The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna
Author: Juliet Grames
Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton
Published: 23rd April 2019
Synopsis: A perfect book club and holiday read that crosses from mountainside Calabrian villages in the early 20th century to Hartford, Connecticut after the immigration boom and will appeal to fans of Elena Ferrante, CAPTAIN CORRELLI’S MANDOLIN, ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE and BROOKLYN.
When I tell you Stella Fortuna was a special girl, I hope you aren’t thinking small-town special. Other people would underestimate Stella Fortuna during her long life, and not one of them didn’t end up regretting it.
Hundred-year-old Stella Fortuna sits alone in her house in Wethersfield, Connecticut, crocheting blankets and angrily ignoring her sister, Tina, who lives across the street. Born into abject poverty in an Italian village, Stella Fortuna’s name might mean Lucky Star, but for the last century, her life has been defined by all the times she might have died. Up until now, Stella’s close bond with her sister has been one of the few things to survive her tumultuous life, but something has happened, and nobody can understand what it might be. Does the one life and many (near) deaths of Stella Fortuna have secrets still to be revealed, even to those who believe they are closest to her?
By turns a family saga, a ghost story, and a coming-of cranky-old-age tale, Juliet Grames’s THE SEVEN OR EIGHT DEATHS OF STELLA FORTUNA lays bare the costs of migration and patriarchal values, but also of the love and devotion that can sustain a family through generations, in a sprawling 20th century saga of a young woman with a fire inside her which cannot be put out.
Books with this kind of title seem to be a kind of trend right now – The Seven Lives of Evelyn Hardcastle, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (by different authors), and now The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna by Juliet Grames, which covers one hundred years of a life that begins in a Calabrian village, and finishes the story in Hartford, Connecticut. Stella Fortuna’s many near death experiences are a mystery – how she survives being eviscerated, being crushed by a door, bleeding out and many other near misses including fate intervening to ensure she does not board a ship that goes down at sea with no survivors, to the final almost death as a very old woman. So what causes them? Does her name – Stella Fortuna, which translates to lucky star suggest something more than just pure luck? Is there something keeping her from dying, like a ghost? Throughout the novel, there is the sense that something is always going to coming, with long lulls that lead into each near death – some very long ones that whilst interesting, perhaps could have been divided up or shortened for ease of reading. However, I can see why each chapter was the length it was as well, so it did work for the story, but page breaks are always nice, so you know when you can set it aside temporarily and come back to find out what is going to happen.
Each event is intricately written – with the reminders of each previous near death forming physically and emotionally for Stella and her family as they see her through her life and deaths, especially her sister Tina, with whom her relationship is constantly changing. At the heart of this rather unique and highly unusual novel is a family saga of immigration, life and death, and secrets that family keeps or questions that do not always have an answer.
I read this in over the course of four hours – so it is engrossing and intriguing, but I’m in two minds about it. On one hand, it is not one I am likely to revisit – despite the intriguing storyline, there were times when I felt like too much was happening to lead up to the death, and perhaps things could have been condensed. I felt like the first births of her children meandered a little, and then the rest were a brief run down to fit them all into the story. For me, whilst a very good chapter, this was one area where I felt some more balance between each child would be useful. However, I can also see that some of them were to play a more significant role towards the end than others, and that is why more time was spent on them.
My other thought it that this is the kind of book that someone might need to read a couple of times to fully appreciate it and understand – to peel back the layers, so to speak. Given there are many books like this out there, I may not have the chance to revisit this one and take everything in for a second time, but I do believe there is an audience out there for this book.
A work of fiction, it is written as though by a relative, a grandchild of Stella, who is never truly identified as Stella recounts her long life and all the strange and intricate events to her as a family history, so it almost reads as a biographical piece throughout. The flow was good – maintained by very little intrusion of the person putting Stella’s story to paper, apart from the beginning and end, where the story is introduced and concluded.
I hope other readers enjoy this book and find something interesting in it.