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The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna: A Novel
by Juliet Grames

Published: 2019-05-07
Hardcover : 464 pages
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From Calabria to Connecticut: a sweeping family saga about sisterhood, secrets, Italian immigration, the American dream, and one woman's tenacious fight against her own fate

For Stella Fortuna, death has always been a part of life. Stella’s childhood is full of strange, life-threatening ...

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Introduction

From Calabria to Connecticut: a sweeping family saga about sisterhood, secrets, Italian immigration, the American dream, and one woman's tenacious fight against her own fate

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.

“Witty and deeply felt.” —Entertainment Weekly (New and Notable)

“The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna achieves what no sweeping history lesson about American immigrants could: It brings to life a woman that time and history would have ignored.” —Washington Post

 

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.

Excerpt

Preface

This is the story of Mariastella Fortuna the Second, called Stella, formerly of Ievoli, a mountain village in Calabria, Italy, and lately of Connecticut, in the United States of America. Her life stretched over more than a century, and during that life she endured much bad luck and hardship. This is the story of how she never died.

Over the course of her hundred years, the second Stella Fortuna (I will tell you about the first in a little bit) would survive eight near-death experiences—or seven, depending on how you count them. She would be bludgeoned and concussed, she would asphyxiate, she would hemorrhage, and she would be lobotomized. She would be partially submerged in boiling oil, be split from belly to bowel on two unrelated occasions, and on a different day have her life saved only by a typo. Once she would almost accidentally commit suicide.

Was it fantastically bad luck that the second Stella encountered such danger or fantastically good luck she survived it? I can’t decide. In either case, it is rather a lot of adventure to pack into a single life story, but the Calabrese are a tough people. It is what we are known for, being stubborn beyond any reason and without any care for self or well-being. For so many centuries of our history we had so little we were able to fight for that this instinct is irrepressible: when we have set our mind on something, the force of our will is greater than the threat of disorder, disgrace, or death. What Stella Fortuna fought for so stubbornly was her life, seven (or eight) different times. I wish I could say no one ever faulted her for that.

Most of what I know about Stella’s extraordinary life story I learned from her little sister, Concettina, who is also still alive. She is in her late nineties now and goes by the name Tina Caramanico, “Tina” because “Concettina” was too old-fashioned for America, and “Caramanico” because here in the United States, she was told, a woman takes her husband’s surname instead of keeping her father’s.

Auntie Tina lives alone in the marshy lowlands of Dorchester, Connecticut, in a house her husband built for her in 1954. Her husband is dead, of course, so the only person she has to cook for is you when you come to her house. You probably don’t come to visit as often as you should, and when you do come to visit, it is offensive to Auntie Tina how little you’ll eat. All this seems like an Italian grandmother joke, but I assure you Tina Caramanico is quite serious. There are two ways to handle this overfeeding situation. You can yell at her to stop putting food on your plate, then feel guilty about yelling at an old woman. Or you can avoid the conflict, eat quietly, and suffer only physically afterward. The first time I brought my husband to meet her, Auntie Tina told me admiringly, “He eats so nicely.” This is a thing Italian grandmothers say about men who don’t yell at them during dinner.

It is hard to remember that Auntie Tina is in her upper nineties; she seems as pink and sweaty and vigorous as she was at sixty-five. Her brown eyes are milky but bright; her knuckles bulge with strength and the tendons of her hands stand out angry against the carpals, yearning for something to grip—a wooden spoon, a meat tenderizer, a great-nephew’s cheek. She shines with the perspiration of frantic activity at all times; she wears a mustache of sweat beads. She has shrunken with age—she is five two now, although she was once five seven, a tall woman in her day—but her arms are thick and muscular. She famously came over to “help clean” my cousin Lyndsay’s house when Lyndsay was pregnant and beat the braided kitchen rug so energetically that the rug uncoiled itself all over the back porch. At least, in the end, it was truly clean.

Family memory is a tricky thing; we repeat some stories to ourselves until we are bored of them, while others inexplicably fall away. Or maybe not inexplicably; maybe some stories, if remembered, would fit too uncomfortably into the present family narrative. One generation resists them, and then the generation that follows never knew them, and then they are gone, overwritten by the gentler sound bites.

I think this is why I was already grown up before I first heard the story of Stella Fortuna’s seven (or eight) almost-deaths. I was sitting at Auntie Tina’s table eating zucchini bread one afternoon when she first counted them out for me.

“Everyone knows about the Accident,” I remember her saying, “but do you know about the eggplant?”

“What eggplant?” I said, suspicious.

“The time Stella was almost killed by an eggplant.”

“By an eggplant?” I glanced out the window at the four-foot-long Sicilian zucchini hanging from the trellis in Auntie Tina’s backyard. I hadn’t heard of anyone’s life being imperiled by a vegetable before, but it didn’t seem out of the realm of possibility.

“Where you think she got those scars on her arms?”

And then there were six other times she almost died, too—six or maybe five. Auntie Tina ticked them off on her knobby beige fingers: the pigs; the schoolhouse; the boat, which was controversial; the rapist; the stupid doctor; the choking.

As Tina rattled through the litany of traumas, I was overcome by a warm nausea. How many times Stella had come so close—what surreal violence her body had endured. How statistically improbable that she should have survived. I listened to Tina’s list while the saliva dried from my mouth; the zucchini bread, which was quite dense to begin with, became difficult to swallow. I had that same helpless, dreadful feeling you have when you are sitting next to a coughing person on a bus and you know, you just know, you’ve caught whatever they’ve got. I had been infected by Tina’s story, the story of the life and deaths of Stella Fortuna.

“Auntie Tina,” I said when the list was concluded, “will you tell me again? So I can write it down?” I was already rummaging in her pencil-and-coupon drawer for an old phone bill envelope to take notes on.

She hesitated, looking at my poised pen. Later, when I knew the whole story, I would wonder what went through her head during that long moment. But the hesitation ended and she said, decisively, “I tell you again, and you write it down.”

“Yes, please,” I said. She was watching me out of her watery pink-rimmed eyes. I couldn’t tell if her expression was excited or doleful. “Tell me everything you remember.”

“Some parts of the story, they no nice,” she warned me, in all fairness.

But who ever understands or believes a warning like that?

Among my many sources, Tina Caramanico is the most important. I think finally, after all these years, she wanted to set the record straight. She knew better than anyone else, alive or dead, all of the details, because she had been there at Stella’s side the whole time. She has the most at stake—the most compelling reason to tell me the whole truth, but also the most compelling reason to hide it.

She is still there at Stella’s side now, although the sisters have not spoken to each other in thirty years.

Across the street from Tina’s little white ranch house, not forty yards away, Stella sits in an armchair by the picture window in her own little white ranch house. The arrangement is ideal for the estranged sisters to spy on each other, watching each other’s driveways to tally up which relative is coming to visit whom. Stella will sit in this window for most of the day, crocheting then taking apart the beginnings of blankets she’ll never finish. She is trapped in the prison of her mind, and so is the rest of her family, although no one but Stella knows exactly what the inside of that prison looks like.

Around 11 A.M., Stella will disappear from the picture window to go lie down for a while. At this time, Tina will fetch whatever food she has prepared for Stella’s lunch—a vegetable minestra or a plate of pork cutlets—hustle across the street, and let herself in through the back door. Tina will deposit the food on the stove and leave as quickly as she possibly can, what with being almost one hundred years old. Stella will only eat her sister’s cooking if they can all pretend she doesn’t know who made it. Later, Tina’s nephew Tommy will wash the pot or plate and walk it back across the street.

Stella Fortuna’s eighth almost-death, the one referred to as the Accident, occurred in December 1988, and resulted in a cerebral hemorrhage and a lifesaving lobotomy. This particular procedure was experimental at that time, and the surgeon said it was unlikely Stella would live; if she did, she would spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair with a feeding tube. The surgeon, as we know, was proven wrong; Stella, the survivor, survived yet again. But with thirty years of retrospective wisdom we can see that the Accident ruined lives—is still ruining them.

The hardest break—the most enigmatic—was between Stella and Tina. For sixty-seven years they’d been best friends, constant companions, but when Stella woke from her coma she refused to speak to her sister ever again, for reasons she hasn’t been able to explain. Or maybe it’s that no one has been willing to listen when she’s tried.

From the time they were children, Stella’s and Tina’s lives were stitched together, the warp and weft of the same fabric. For twenty-four years the sisters slept in the same bed, until marriage split them apart. After that, they lived in neighboring houses that overlooked the same swampy backyard, sharing meals and gossip every day for another forty years. What in Stella’s tampered-with mind made her turn on her sister? Tina, the sweet old woman who has cooked for Stella, cleaned up her messes, cried her tears for her for the ten long decades of their lives?

What could it be?

Auntie Tina’s lonely story—the selfless spurned sister, invisibly taking care of her lost best friend—has always drawn me to her. A human tragedy, I thought. As I have gotten older, though, I have realized there’s another tragedy, one in plain sight: Stella’s. The people who remember Stella Fortuna will remember the person she was for this last third of her life, demented and resented. I have seen how this thirty-year chore of looking after Stella has eroded her own family’s affections; when they tell stories about her, they remember the worst ones, although I don’t think they realize they are doing it. And I don’t blame them—it has not been an easy thirty years. Stella is not even dead—may never die at the rate she is going—but all the good she did in this world has already been forgotten and buried.

This is the reason I had to set my life aside to write this book. I hope the fruits of my obsession will be the disinterment of Stella Fortuna, an explication of her too-strange life and a restoration of her besmirched good name. I have tried to reconstruct here the pieces of her legacy that are missing from what is remembered by the living. What follows is my best effort, an effort that has relied heavily upon anecdotal recollections as well as my own research. To the family, friends, enemies, well-wishers, victims, neighbors, and other conoscenti of Mariastella Fortuna who have been so generous to me with their time and contributions, my most sincere gratitude. Any error in fact or judgment is entirely on the part of the author.

Brooklyn, New York, 2019 view abbreviated excerpt only...

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, grotesque, and 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?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
 
 
  "Sweeping tale chronicling the lives of an Italian immigrant family"by zodejodie4 (see profile) 12/26/20

3.5 Stars. Sweeping & epic in scope, this is a fascinating read chronicling the experiences of an Italian immigrant family. I enjoyed this glimpse at what it may have been like for some of my own Italian... (read more)

 
by MarlaTapper (see profile) 04/02/20

 
  "Although I read almost half, I was unable to finish it."by thewanderingjew (see profile) 10/27/19

The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna, Juliet Grames, author; Lisa Flanagan, narrator
I did not finish this book. It is rare for me to give up on a book, however, when I began dreadin
... (read more)

 
  "the 7 or 8 deaths of stella fortuna"by Carolynr (see profile) 06/29/19

this is not a bad story == I didn't connect with the characters all that well, so for me I don't see it as a 4-5 star book. But not a bad read.
a bit slow for a book club recommendation,
... (read more)

 
  "GREAT DEBUT"by Silversolara (see profile) 05/07/19



Stella was the second child of Assunta and Antonio Fortuna and the second Stella because the first Mariastella died from influenza when she was an infant.

Assunta had a difficult life



... (read more)

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