The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna
This book is phenomenal. A strong start to a review, perhaps, but I loved every aspect of it. It follows the life of one of the most formidable woman characters that I have ever had the pleasure to read about. Her story spans from 1920s Italy, through WWI, WWII, immigrating to the US, and starting a new life in a strange and foreign world. Epic is the word that best describes this book. It is epic in scope, in physical size, and in vision. But don’t let the size of the book deter you. I flew through this story and savored every moment I spent with the Fortuna family.
The book is narrated by a family member describing the life of her grandmother, Mariastella (Stella) Fortuna. The story begins at the end of Stella’s life; she has become angry, different from the woman that the family has always known, and is in a heated feud with her younger sister, Tina, whom she now refuses to talk to. Stella, we discover, has had a lobotomy and it has changed her personality in the extreme. The narrator decides to uncover the secret of why Stella refuses to speak to the sister from whom she was once inseparable. This is where the story goes back to the early twentieth century, to the small Italian village in which Stella Fortuna was born. From there it follows her through her life and her seven (or eight, depending on how you look at it) brushes with death.
Stella is a sensation and I fell in love with her immediately. She’s beautiful, unstoppable, and determined to never be married. Her father is a selfish jerk, but only she can see it. She does not want to have a future like her mother’s present, because she sees marriage as the thing that makes her mother so unhappy. Her sister, Tina, is quiet and well-behaved. She looks up to Stella. As a little sister myself, it made me remember how much I idolized my sister when I was younger (and still do). They also have a brother who returns from war a different person. Their family life is tough (I am glad I did not live in small-town Italy in the 1920s) and full of emotional upheavals and drama (mostly caused by Stella’s father).
What I loved most about this book was the sensory writing. I could feel the Italian sun warming me as I read. I could smell the orange trees that Stella and Tina pick fruit from and see the village that Stella grows up in. I could hear Stella’s mother’s scream when she finds her daughter bleeding in another near-death experience. I could also smell the herbs that they use to ward off the bad juju that clearly haunts our heroine.
The idea of evil spirits and bad juju weaves its way through all of Stella’s story. The family (and narrator alongside them) is trying to discover the reason for Stella’s bad luck. Why does she have so many run-ins with death? What is the reason for her curse? This spiritual element of the book was one of my favorite story tropes. I love a bit of past-life chat, bad vibes feeling, and all round off-center beliefs. It drives my science-minded, logical, answer-seeking friends crazy, but I would happily get my tarot read or have someone divine my future from my palm. They think it’s silly, but I love the layer of added mystery that it gives to life (and to this book).
The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna is epic in scope, brilliant in voice, and has a cast of characters that you can’t help but love. It is a story of familial obligation, of fighting for your beliefs, of near-death experiences, and of big opportunities and big life changes. It is a book that I would want to press into the hands of anyone in a book club. This is a book to savor and discuss at length, and one that will stay with me a long time.