Book Review: The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna by Juliet Grames

The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna by Juliet Grames

About The Book

If Stella Fortuna means ‘lucky star,’ then life must have a funny sense of humour.

Everybody in the Fortuna family knows the story of how the beautiful, fiercely independent Stella, who refused to learn to cook and who swore she would never marry, has escaped death time and time again.

From her childhood in Italy, to her adulthood in America, death has seemed to pursue Stella. She has been burned, eviscerated and bludgeoned; she has choked, nearly fallen out of a window, and on one occasion, her life was only saved by a typo.

However, even the best-known stories still have secrets to reveal . . . and even after a century, Stella’s is no exception. 

No woman survives seven or eight deaths without a reason. So, how did she? In a tale which spans nine decades, two continents, and one family’s darkest, deepest-buried truths, the answer awaits. . .

My Review

The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna by Juliet Grames is the story of Mariastella Fortuna, known as Stella, a fictionalised woman who is brought to life in this spectacular debut novel. Born in a small village in Italy we follow her as she grows up in poverty to her immigration to America just before World War 2 and her subsequent adjustment to life as an Italian-American. We are also privy to the times she narrowly escapes death, something which sounds peculiar and macabre but somehow isn’t.

This is a beautifully written book which transported me to the Italian countryside and the small house in which the Fortuna family reside. Juliet Grames’ vivid descriptions of the landscape, smells, heat, people and superstitions seep from the pages and provide a stunning backdrop against which we meet Stella. She is quite forthright, brave, with an independent streak mile wide and is an exquisitely written character. It is very, very easy to fall in love with Stella so when bad things happen to her it feels almost personal. She doesn’t want to get married, she wants to live on her own and wants to be in control of her money and life and is an anachronism. In an Italian family in the early part of last Century her father rules the home and so, she rails against him whenever possible,

One of this novel’s many strengths is its sharp observations of family and relationships. The relationship Stella has with her mother Assunta and younger sister, Tina is, quite frankly, beautiful. This trio of women go through huge adversity and continue to shore each other and provide ballast when needed. The complexities and nuances of family life are perfectly executed and, with a father who is a difficult, belligerent and aggressive man these women find their own ways to cope in a home which doesn’t always feel like a sanctuary.

It is quite a dark read at times and Juliet Grames doesn’t shy away from examining human nature and behaviour. I found some sections difficult to read, there is a thread of darkness running through the novel, a sense of ominous foreboding almost. The novel opens in the present day and Stella is alive, so we know that despite being trampled by pigs and choking on a chicken bone she has cheated death, but it becomes clear that these narrow escapes aren’t the worst parts of her life. I could have cried for her, for the shattering of her hopes and dreams and for the times when decisions are made for her. It is a startling to read about such a recent past and realise just how different life was for women at that time and how far we have come in such a sort period of time. For the Fortunas assimilating into the American way of life means that women do have choices and this is a strange concept for not only the women in the family, but the men too.

I found the assimilation and cultural aspects of the novel absorbing. Distrust for the family because they are Italian and their inability to speak English are both barriers to life in America. Their gradual adjustment to life in the US and slow, gradual absorption of American culture is fascinating and really shines a light on the cultural melting pot that is America.

The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna is an epic read which I really loved. It is part historical, part family drama, part literary fiction and is wholly absorbing. If sprawling books that you can get lost in are your thing then this book could be for you.

Where You Can Buy It

My thanks to Netgalley and to the publisher Hodder & Stoughton for an advanced copy of this book in return for an honest review. The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna by Juliet Grames is published today in both hardback and ebook.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna by Juliet Grames

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