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

Book Review: The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna by Juliet Grames (2019) 5 Stars *****

Every few years, we come across a book that we recognize as a work of art: a masterpiece for its writing, its story, and its truths. This is one of those books. Spanning a one hundred year period, this fictional story, based on the author’s familial experiences, captures the life, struggles, and emotional turmoil of Mariastella (Stella) Fortuna from her cursed beginnings in Ievoli, Calabria in Italy through her emigration to Hartford, Connecticut in the United States from the 1900s to the present.

The story is told in the third person by Stella’s granddaughter. The emotional anguish is so intense that the third person point of view thankfully protects the reader from a total immersion in Stella’s sorrow, frustrations, and disappointments. The book is so real and the character(s) so relatable, that I felt feisty Stella’s pain, and that of her mother, the sainted Assunta. So much emotion subtly revealed in the nearly 500 page revelation!

The often harsh patriarchal, male dominated society, the rapes, incest, psychological and physical abuses, the near starvation, the ravages and finality of disease, the injustice and absurdity of being ruled and overruled by men who operate without intelligence and with purely selfish motives both on the political front as well as in the home, the prejudices encountered within Italy and magnified one thousand times as experienced upon admission to the United States, paint a picture of suffering, despair, bias, suspicion and mistrust. With the traditions and laws of the land counter to the rights of women, their only recourse is to pray to God for deliverance, justice, and mercy for themselves and their young children since neither the male members of their families nor the government offer protection. The men? With everything stacked in their favor, they confiscate and squander any dowry or work savings from their wives and children with impunity. If women are lucky enough to marry a man with integrity and a brain, the family life can be blessed. If not, everyone is up the creek without a paddle. Many marriages are arranged, or since there is no dating, couples attracted to each other by beautiful, sparkling eyes across the village square are betrothed and married on their second and third meetings. Life for women is a crapshoot.

Where are the streets paved in gold rumored to abound in L’America? Disappointment and disbelief fill Stella’s heart as she views the street below her tenement building in Hartford. Instead, the streets are paved with desperate people, push carts, and shanty town shelters for the homeless.

Stella is ahead of her time. She fears the loss of her autonomy. She wants to live on her own as a single woman in charge of her own life, dependent on her earnings to cover the expenses of rent and daily life. Her father will not allow this. Stella fears marriage, sexual relations, pregnancy and childbirth. She eventually agrees to marry Carmelo, a kind, loving, patient suitor. Stella, being Stella, gives him a run for his money. I had to wonder what Carmelo saw in her to pursue her as his wife despite the cruel way she treated him. This handsome, loyal, solid citizen wanted only her and ignored the scores of eligible women who desired him as their husband. It seems that Stella got the better end of the deal.

As in most Italian families, Stella’s is a closely knit one. Her younger sister, Tina, and her mother, Assunta, are her best friends. Stella manages to live to one hundred years old despite the many scars that bear witness to the numerous near death experiences that would have killed a lesser person. How is Stella even still alive? She believes she is cursed by the ghost of the first Mariastella who died from the flu as a toddler because their miserable, neglectful, self-centered, perverted father refuses to leave his home in the bad weather to call for the doctor. Throughout most of the book, Stella believes her dead sister is jealous of her life, intelligence, and beauty and haunts her existence for living the life she should have had.

Nearer the end, Stella looks at another person as the source of the curse. A person who is always there in the nick of time to save her from certain death. A person who lives vicariously through Stella’s accomplishments and kindnesses. Are Stella’s conclusions misguided? Can negative energy create disaster in someone’s life? What happens when using protection against the evil eye doesn’t work because the culprit appears as an innocent, indispensable and loved, and is never suspected as a source of malevolence?

Each death or near death experience coincides with the natural progression of Stella’s life. Chapter headings have two titles: one for the cause of the near death and one for the corresponding stage in Stella’s life. Cognitive Development, Growing Pains, Education, Immigration, Marriage, Motherhood, Change of Life, Dementia all bring terrible physical disfigurement. Somehow, each tribulation serves to strengthen Stella rather than diminish her. She openly becomes overwhelmed near the end of her life and resorts to wine and solitude as an escape. This complex character has not come through life unscathed. Is the saying wrong? Does God give some people more than they can bear?

 

Please let me know your thoughts. I’d love to hear from you. You can email me at author@elainedonadio.com.

I wish you all a life inspired by the wonder of the world around us. May you find and live your truth, in harmony with people, nature and the environment. May you be a force for good and a source of love and comfort. May the world be a better place for you having lived and loved here.

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Saturday, March 14, 2020- Barnes & Noble, Massapequa, NY 12:00-4:00pm

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