The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna Juliet Grames (2019)
Fair warning: Most of the men in this novel are brutes. Even the ones who are polite at the dinner table, who bring lovely gifts, and who work hard to support their families still tyrannize women outrageously. The worst of these men is a pervert who engages in criminal sexual activities, but there are gradations of nastiness—sexual, economic, and emotional.
So the women are the stars—especially Stella Fortuna, whose name, as the novelist tells us, actually means “‘star luck’ or maybe even ‘lucky star’.” (4) Stella is beautiful and smart, exceling at computation and at needlework although she’s functionally illiterate. But Stella’s most defining characteristics reside in her personality. She’s argumentative and honest and independent—whoa, is she independent. For a young woman with such a streak of self-sufficiency, it’s not an easy life in Ievoli, a small Calabrian mountain village in the early twentieth century. The rural women of Ievoli are workhorses and baby breeders, performing heavy labor until they go into heavy labor. Most of them submit unquestioningly to their domineering husbands. In these early sections of the novel there are touches of magic realism that some reviewers have found jarring. I thought the magic realism fit perfectly with the Italian Catholicism of the era, its rosaries and religious processions coexisting with charms to ward off the Evil Eye.
Just before World War II, the Fortuna family emigrates to Hartford, Connecticut, against the will of Stella’s mother. Does life get easier? Well, by boarding that ship they do miss the worst of the reign of Mussolini and the wartime marauding of Nazi soldiers. But in America Stella has a battle on her hands to stay single, as she has vowed to do, having figured out about the brutishness of those males. Though life in Ievoli afforded few material comforts, at least the inhabitants were surrounded by stunning natural beauty, which is woefully lacking in the slums of Hartford. Stella daydreams: “She pictured Ievoli, the glowing yellow-green of the citrus leaves in the April sun, the silver-blue of the September olive groves, the sun-baked July rows of bulging tomato stakes marching like soldiers along the terraced mountain.” (328)
The entire novel is framed from the viewpoint of the present day, when Stella is 100 years old. The narrator, a descendant of the Fortuna clan, gets the stories of all of Stella’s close brushes with death from Stella’s sister, Concettina, (“Cettina” in Italy and “Tina” in America). In an Author’s Note, Juliet Grames mentions that memories of her own elderly relatives inspired components of Stella’s life, and I found myself wondering which parts of the novel correspond with Grames’ own family history.
The boisterous, dramatic, hard-partying Italian Americans in The Seven or Eight Deaths are not stereotypes but rather fully realized characters, some saints but many sinners. Every immigrant family (and the vast majority of Americans come from one) has similar characters. Grames has captured the immigrant experience magnificently, using the anticipatory device of the “deaths” to get me to read late into the night to find out how Stella survived yet again. Brava!
For another story about Italian Americans, find a DVD of the classic 1987 movie Moonstruck. And for more of my reviews of books about immigrants, click on “Immigrant Stories” in the column to the right.