Stella Fortuna is either the luckiest or unluckiest person in the world–she’s survived seven (or eight, depending how you count) near-death experiences. Now nearly a century old, her last near-death experience in 1988 left her partially lobotomized and hating her younger sister, Tina. Our narrator sets out to hear about the family history and try to uncover why this rift happened.
The tone is very chatty, very much the feeling of sitting at a kitchen table and hearing gossipy and dramatic family stories. Our narrator is never identified by name, but she’s one of Stella’s granddaughters, and the whole book leaves you feeling that you’re being let in on family secrets, some of them very dark and sad.
The characters, Stella especially, are great. Because of the family story aspect, there’s something almost mythical about them. There’s a bit of distance, and all of their attributes, good and bad, are larger than life. Grames sets this tone in her family tree included at the beginning of the book, with her little notes on who each character is (and thank goodness for that family tree! It’s essential for keeping everyone straight).
Grames richly describes her settings, from Calabria’s mountain villages to immigrant neighborhoods in Connecticut. There’s great texture to her storytelling, a wonderful sense of place.
This novel is also about the immigrant experience, an incredibly timely topic. Speaking to us in the present, the narrator mentions how now there are immigrants desperate to get into Italy, instead of out of it. The times and places change, but not the reasons for immigrating or the need for basic humanity and compassion.
The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna is a compelling read with slightly larger than life characters, a fun tone and humor even in the darker parts, and a novel to really immerse yourself in.