One of our recommended books for 2019 is The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna by Juliet Grames

THE SEVEN OR EIGHT DEATHS OF STELLA FORTUNA


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 own mother is convinced that her daughter is cursed or haunted.

In her rugged Italian village, Stella is considered an oddity—beautiful and smart, insolent and cold. Stella uses her peculiar toughness to protect her slower, plainer baby sister Tina from life’s harshest realities. But she also provokes the ire of her father Antonio: a man who demands subservience from women and whose greatest gift to his family is his absence.

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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 own mother is convinced that her daughter is cursed or haunted.

In her rugged Italian village, Stella is considered an oddity—beautiful and smart, insolent and cold. Stella uses her peculiar toughness to protect her slower, plainer baby sister Tina from life’s harshest realities. But she also provokes the ire of her father Antonio: a man who demands subservience from women and whose greatest gift to his family is his absence.

When the Fortunas emigrate to America on the cusp of World War II, Stella and Tina must come of age side-by-side in a hostile new world with strict expectations for each of them. Soon Stella learns that her survival is worthless without the one thing her family will deny her at any cost: her independence.

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.

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  • Ecco Press
  • Hardcover
  • May 2019
  • 464 Pages
  • 9780062862822

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$27.99

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About Juliet Grames

Juliet Grames is the author of The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna, credit Nina SubinJuliet Grames was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and grew up in a tight-knit Italian-American family. A book editor, she has spent the last decade at Soho Press, where she is Associate Publisher and curator of the Soho Crime imprint. This is her first novel.

Praise

“[A] vivid and moving debut…. 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.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“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.” Booklist

“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.” — Adriana Trigiani, bestselling author of Tony’s Wife

“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.” — Jessica Shattuck, bestselling author of The Women in the Castle

“I so enjoyed The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna. 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.” — Lisa See, author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

Discussion Questions

1. Do you think that any of Stella’s near-deaths was her own fault? Which one(s), and why? Do you think Stella ever secretly blamed herself for a bad thing that happened to her? What about her family—do you think they ever believed that she had it coming?

2. The longer she is married, the more Assunta struggles with her oath to God that she will obey her husband. What individual events reshape her attitude, and how? Do you think she makes mistakes about when she should be obedient and when she should push back, or do you think in her shoes you would make the same choices?

3. Do you—or could you—believe in the Evil Eye? Do you think other people’s jealousy can take form and negatively affect us?

4. Is Stella a religious person? How does her religiosity differ from her mother’s?

5. Does Stella Fortuna’s life have a love story? Why do you think there is never a more traditional romance during the course of her long life? Who does Stella love most? Who loves Stella most?

6. If Antonio Fortuna lived today instead of a century ago, would he be considered a sociopath? Or is he more complicated? Why do you think he does the abusive and grotesque things he does? Are they symptoms of a single underlying reason, or are they random acts of an undisciplined and naturally cruel man?

7. When Stella first experiences her nightmare, she distracts her family from what really happened by blaming an imaginary black man for an assault that happened only in her dream. Why do you think she does this? How might the situation have escalated? The Italian American community has had a reputation for anti-African American racism, which is often represented in media, like Quentin Tarantino’s True Romance or in the episode of The Sopranos entitled “Unidentified Black Males.” Do you think Stella’s instinct to blame a black man is a product of the time in which she lived, or do you think she’d do the same today? Do you think that in America, where successive waves of immigrants from different places make up the majority of the population, racism is more of a problem than it is in more homogenous populations? Do the simultaneous pressures to Americanize and preserve traditions pit groups against each other and create confrontations? Or is the truth the opposite, that the mixing of so many different groups means more open-mindedness and acceptance than the same immigrants would have felt in their home country?

8. Stella knows that her father, although strict, would not want to be identified as one of the “old world” un-Americanized Italians in Hartford, and Stella uses this knowledge to convince him to let the sisters cut their hair short. In your opinion, do the Fortunas Americanize, or do they ghettoize themselves among other Italians? Which of the family members do you imagine felt more of a moral imperative to modernize or preserve traditions? Have you observed similar tensions of identity among immigrant groups you may be a part of?

9. Is Carmelo Maglieri a good man?

10. After her Accident, when Stella turns on Tina, what do you think Tina thinks? Do you think she is baffled and heartbroken, or do you think on some level she feels guilty over things that have happened between the sisters over the last sixty-plus years?

Essay

When I was five years old, my grandmother slipped and fell down her cellar stairs, which resulted in a cerebral hemorrhage and a lifesaving lobotomy.

She made a miraculous recovery, but when she woke up from her coma, certain things were off. She was obsessed with the color red. She insisted on changing her birthday from January 12 to January 11. Having emigrated from Italy when she was a young woman, my grandmother was bilingual, but after the surgery she inevitably picked the wrong language with which to address any given interlocutor.

And finally, when my grandmother woke up from her coma, she refused to speak to her sister, my great-aunt Connie. Grandma and Aunt Con were a year and a half apart in age. They had been best friends their entire lives, had married a pair of best friends, shared a single backyard, and raised my grandmother’s many children together (Aunt Con and her husband had been unlucky in fertility). But whatever the doctors had cut out of my grandmother’s brain left a violent enmity toward her sister—I mean literally physically violent. The two could never be in the same room together again.

That was thirty years ago.

We are a large, tight-knit Italian family, and observe many of the stereotypes that might be made about Italian Americans (noisy gatherings around banquet tables of carbs, nosy frequent check-ins with cousins and second cousins, endless strategic gossip). My grandmother’s brain trauma broke this ecosystem in two. She could be mean, lash out, spoil parties. She had become a burden, requiring constant medical attention and perpetual babysitting. And the person most suited to provide that care—the person who most wanted to do it, her sister—was no longer allowed in her presence.

I was only five and didn’t yet realize that not every family has a “crazy” grandma. At the same time, I was entranced by my grandmother, who told so many stories yet seemed to be keeping so many secrets. What was the truth about her sudden hatred for her sister and best friend? Why couldn’t she explain it? In my childish optimism I thought I could, someday, get it out of her.

I’ve known I wanted to write since I was a little girl, and it started because I wanted to understand my grandmother. When I was eight, I started my first “novel,” tapped out after school on my dad’s then-cutting-edge desktop, which took six minutes to boot up. The “novel” was a fictionalization of my grandmother’s life I called An Italian Girl. This false start and many other such attempts to channel her closed-off truth were all wisely (if frustratingly) relegated to digital trash bins.

Twenty years later, I abandoned hope of every bridging the medical barrier between us and started, instead, to seriously write a novel. The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna, which I began in 2013, worked from an outline of what I knew about my grandmother’s difficult life but was populated by imagined characters, most notably Stella, who took on a life of her own and filled in for me what I could never know about my real grandmother. (For her example, her personality, which had been carved out by a scalpel.) Through sinking myself into research, I learned the textures and truths of the time and place where she was born, the mythologies of the world she grew up in. By writing the novel, I was able to trick myself into thinking I’d relived my grandmother’s experience—that I’d somehow reached her. Instead, I’d created Stella.

In 2015, I took a leave of absence from my job and spent the winter in the Calabrian village where my grandmother was born. The goal of my trip was research: to interview the oldest people in town to collect their memories of the early twentieth century, to learn more about things I hadn’t been able to read in books, like the Evil Eye Incantations my family has passed down orally, the strange rumors about the American occupation during World War II, and the nuts and bolts of the cottage silk-worming industry that had once thrived in the Italian south. I visited the local historical museum, open only by request, to page through hundreds of emigrant visa records.

Most revelatory was the morning I spent at the municipio, the town hall, where I tracked down, among other family records, my grandmother’s birth certificate. It was dated January 11, 1920.

I actually felt a wave of nausea when I saw the date. After her lobotomy, when my grandmother whimsically changed her birthday to January 11, she had in fact been correcting a mistake. Why had her birthday been changed from the twelfth to the eleventh? And why had she hid the fact from her family for at least half a century? I did eventually learn the answer, as have you. This was one of the true anecdotes I borrowed from my grandmother’s life story to include in my fictional Stella Fortuna’s.

But. More to the point:

What else was my “crazy” grandmother right about? What else had she been trying to tell us—what other truths had we been writing off? And why were we never willing to listen to her before?

In the end, The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna is purely a work of fiction. Although it’s inspired by hardships my grandmother endured, and in particular by the heartbreaking rift between her and her sister, there were just too many questions I couldn’t answer, and too many truths I wanted to invent for her. Above all, I found as I was writing the character of Stella had started to stand for more than just my grandmother. Life was not easy for impoverished immigrants, nor for women living rightlessly in a patriarchy, and hard lives make people do hard things. But our grandmothers gave us our lives, however ugly the things they suffered to do so. The women who came before us suppressed all kinds of secrets because they had to, secrets that cost them in years, bitterness, tears, sometimes their lives. They deserve to be remembered and understood better than they are.

In the end, I was never able to explain to my grandmother how much her life inspired and taught me. She passed away at age ninety-eight just short of my being able to show her this finished text.  But I am grateful that I was able to write it, and now be able to share it. If I have one hope for this novel, it is that it might inspire other people to reconsider the difficult grandmothers in their lives—to maybe restore dignity to their fascinating and misunderstood legacies.