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 mother is convinced that her daughter is cursed or haunted. a sweeping family saga about sisterhood, secrets, Italian immigration, the American dream, and one woman’s tenacious fight against her fate. A compelling history about the difficulties of life in recent generations.
Grames, who has based some of her story on family history, eschews the New World fairy tale in favour of the truth. Immigrants could be confused by America’s plenty; a great scene in which the sisters realize they can buy meat regularly illuminates how 20th-century “red-sauce cuisine” really began. Young couples rarely had space they longed for, instead of remaining in houses with parents and other relatives for years while saving enough to buy a home. Tempers flared, privacy was rare and gentility in short supply. Thus, when Stella takes against her sister in their old age, things get ugly fast. She accuses Tina of ominous things but won’t or can’t fully explain her grievances. Although mysterious, Stella’s anger contains no all-revealing mystery. But “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. That doesn’t quite split the world openly, but it creates a big enough fissure to let the light in.
Beautifully written, sweeping in scope, Grames’ novel with a read that is not always comfortable as these are Italian immigrants struggling first in the hills of Calabria and then in the new world and there is violence and abuse at a few points in the novel but it is very real. It’s a powerful book that you will think about long after turning the last page.
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.