Grames’s vivid and moving debut follows its heroine from a childhood in the early 20th century in a tiny Calabrian mountain village to her family’s immigration to America when she is 19 and then through a long life including a marriage about which she has decidedly mixed feelings, many jobs, and even more children. When the novel begins in the present, Stella is 100 years old and has been brain-damaged for the past 30 years following a fall that required an emergency lobotomy and that left her with a mysterious hatred for her lifelong best friend, her younger sister Tina. The novel’s unnamed narrator, one of Stella’s granddaughters, reconstructs her life history with the help of Tina and other family members. She shapes it around Stella’s numerous near-death experiences, which include being gored by a pig and choking on a chicken bone. Grames keeps the spotlight on stubborn, independent, and frequently unhappy Stella, while developing a large cast of believably complicated supporting characters and painting sensually intricate portraits of Calabria and Connecticut. With her story of an “ordinary” woman who is anything but, Grames explores not just the immigrant experience but the stages of a woman’s life. This is a sharp and richly satisfying novel. (May)
Her many near-fatal mishaps aren't as deadly as marriage and motherhood for a fiercely independent Italian-American woman in this century-spanning novel.
We know from the scene-setting preface that Mariastella Fortuna's "eighth almost-death" led to a mysterious hatred for her formerly beloved younger sister, Tina. Debut author Grames, who based the novel largely on her own family's history, launches it in a stale magic-realist tone that soon gives way to a harder-edged and much more compelling look at women's lives in a patriarchal society. Born in Calabria in 1920, Stella is given the same name as a sister who died in childhood because her father, Antonio, refused to get a doctor. He heads for America three weeks after the second Stella's birth and comes home over the next decade only to impregnate his submissive wife, Assunta, three more times. During those years, young Stella's brushes with death convince her that the ghost of her dead namesake is trying to kill her, but that's not as frightening as the conviction of everyone around her that a woman's only value is as a wife and mother. Stella has seen enough during her brutal, domineering father's visits to be sure she never wants to marry. When, after a 10-year absence, Antonio unexpectedly arranges for his family to join him in America in 1939, readers will hope that Stella will find a freer life there. But the expectations for women in their close-knit Italian-American community in Hartford prove to be the same as in Calabria. The pace quickens and the mood darkens in the novel's final third as it enfolds an ever growing cast of relatives—with quick sketches of the character and destiny of each—and Antonio's actions grow increasingly monstrous. The rush of events muddies the narrative focus, and the purpose of the epilogue is equally fuzzy. However, a tender final glimpse of elderly Tina conveys once again the strength and hard-won pride of the Fortuna women.
Messily executed, but the author's emotional commitment to her material makes it compelling.
Fictionalized details from the life of the author’s own grandmother inspire this tale of an Italian American family and the complicated woman at its heart.... Readers who appreciate narratives driven by vivid characterization and family secrets will find much to enjoy here.... [Grames is] an author to watch.
Juliet Grames has written a magnificent debut, creating a deeply felt, richly imagined world based upon her family history. The dark beauty of Calabria and the promise of America sets the stage for Stella’s volatile life.... Moody, original and profound.
Reading The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna is like listening to the rollicking stories of your Italian grandmother— full of memorable characters and speckled with fascinating bits of history. This is a fantastic and timely family story.
Juliet Grames has delved into the family secrets of an Italian American family and the ways in which those secrets, as well as slights and injustices, can both cross oceans and trickle down through the generations. This quintessential American immigrant story feels important right now, and I highly recommend it.
This debut novel...follows one fascinating family as they make their way from Italy to America on the brink of the Second World War, only to find that some problems—often ones that have to do with who you are and who you’re related to—aren’t so easy to outrun.
The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna is a novel you can’t put down. Above all, I envied its sureness, an effortless control remarkable in a debut novel, in which the shrewd and humorous confidence of the narrator’s voice powers a breakout saga of immigration and familial love.”
As Stella strives to prove herself among the many messy and aggressive men in her life, Grames uses her heroine’s story to reflect on motherhood, inherited trauma and survival.
Grames’ witty and deeply felt family saga begins in a pre-WWII Italian village, where young Stella Fortuna learns the hard truths of life (and death) as she grows up with an abusive father and immigrates with her family to the U.S.
Takes a sprawling approach to several decades of American history, exploring the life of a woman whose proximity to death is far greater than most of her peers. Grames incorporates themes of immigration and inter-generational conflict into her work, creating a powerful and resonant work.
Entrancing.... Grames’ debut will find broad appeal as both an illuminating historical saga and a vivid portrait of a strong woman struggling to break free from the confines of her gender.
’The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna’ achieves what no sweeping history lesson about American immigrants could: It brings to life a woman that time and history would have ignored.
Remarkable.... A rich tale blending fiction with family history, one that celebrates the Calabrese culture in Italy as well as the immigrant experience of diverse cultures in America.... This compelling intergenerational tale is intelligently written.
This is a novel people will be talking about for years to come.
A masterwork that will rightfully draw comparisons with Isabel Allende’s The House Of The Spirits and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude.... An unflinching portrayal of a truly remarkable woman and the life she builds for herself.
Epic in scale and richly detailed.... Grames holds the reader under a spell from start to finish as she constructs a puzzle of identity formed against convention.... Grames’s clear and compassionate voice lets the figures of her heritage move freely.
If you’re going through Elena Ferrante withdrawals, this is the book for you. A rich, sweeping tale of an Italian-American family and their long-buried secrets.
A poignant debut novel.
DEBUT Born three years after the first Mariastella Fortuna, whose death in 1919 at age three haunts her entire Calabrian village, Grames's prickly antiheroine suffers debilitating accidents and illnesses throughout her unhappy life. She also eschews men, marriage, and sexuality, having witnessed her mother's abuse by her father. The family eventually immigrates to America, arriving in Connecticut not to the promised house but to a moldy third-floor walk-up, but the undaunted Stella develops a sense of agency unfamiliar to women steeped in Italian cultural mores and secrets away a portion of her earnings for an escape plan. Yet she's forced into marriage by her father and, as the babies arrive, mourns her lost independence, disappearing into a space where secrets, superstition, and jealousy thrive. VERDICT Not your typical multigenerational saga, this debut novel proffers a dark version of the female experience, where motherhood leeches life from the soul. Stella is an original character ahead of her time, and readers may be troubled by her negativity and not wholly convinced by her action—but kudos to an author who can evoke such a strong reaction. For fans of Amy Tan or Isabelle Allende. [See Prepub Alert, 11/5/18.]—Sally Bissel, formerly with Lee Cty. Lib. System., Fort Myers, FL