Illustration by Author

Saffron Sener
18 August 2019


Take it from me, I learned the hard way. A run to Barnes and Noble ten minutes before closing does not yield the best purchases. The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna by Juliet Grames made that abundantly clear.

It took me a month to write this review. To sit down and really come to terms with the fact that not only had I slogged through Stella Fortuna’s 440 pages, but now I had to analyze them, speak something meaningful to them.

I thought I was grabbing a cool ghost story about an old-world Italian girl who escapes death each time it knocks at her door. What I got, however, was a long-winded family history centered on the author’s grandmother and her decades-long, eventually lost battle against fate, or whatever. Some version of girl, destroyed.

Stella Fortuna—the protagonist of this story—was the second daughter of Antonio and Assunta, a couple in early 20th century Ievoli, Italy. Her older sister, a precedent named Stella Fortuna, died as a toddler. Though her introduction spans dozens of pages, she exists throughout the majority as her successor’s haunt, trying to kill her “seven or eight” times. Yet, Stella always lives. Despite being stomped on by pigs or burned by hot oil, she lives. Her father moves to and stays in America before she is born and thus she and her siblings (especially her younger sister, Cettina, with whom she is closest), barely know him for the beginning of their lives. Assunta, Stella, and her three siblings live an idyllic life alone in a house on a hill, until Antonio forces them to move to America during their teenage years. From there, they are trapped in tenant housing, low-paying jobs, the grip of their abusive father, and eventually marriage.

Stella is defined by her desire to never marry nor have children. She is disgusted by sex and, generally, men. Starkly. She refuses to be courted, hiding in bathrooms and suffering abuse to avoid male attention. She dreams of being raped by her father, and attempts suicide as a result. She sees her mother bear child upon child and is repulsed. However, by the end of the novel, she is married with ten children, subject to sex as often as her husband wants it.

And through this, Grames futily attempts to conjure feminist fiction out of an otherwise ordinary family tale. Uncomfortably. Remember that the majority of this plot is presumably imagined (by Grames), as Stella was a secretive woman who lost her mind and destroyed all family memorabilia, along with all relevant stories. It is insinuated at the end of the novel that Tina, Stella’s sister once known as Cettina, was the main source by which Grames gained a window into Stella’s life, yet in the way that Grames frames her grandmother, chunks of information were often kept from her sister. Certain memories seem extractable by the typical course of family gossip - Stella brandishing a knife at her father and the years of uncomfortable courtship at the hand of Stella’s eventual husband were likely oft-told family tales. But, the whole of the storyline was fiction(alized), not fact.

But, the fallen female heroine that she forces Stella to be? A second-wave feminist’s fantasy. A girl, born into a heavily patriarchal society and culture, disgusted by men and penises and sex and childbirth and marriage and all those things women are meant to do. That’s all she is—truly. Despite being the protagonist, Stella remains as a stagnant manifestation of hatred of men, and largely nothing else.

Now, these words come not in support of men and marriage, necessarily. Rather, I am calling for a more complicated understanding of these fears than men & penis & sex = bad, bad, bad. Because, really, Stella isn’t wrong. For her, men & penis & sex did equal bad, bad, bad. Those things abused her, stripped her of her freedom, drove her mad. But Grames undersells Stella, and stunts her; her characterization as “different” (than her patriarchal line-towing sister and mother) is established in the beginning and never again touched, never complicated. From the rape dream (why did Grames even imagine memory for her grandmother?), to Stella’s crippling fear of childbirth and sex, to her entire honeymoon, fractured attempts at feminist analysis abound. Grames pats herself on the back with phrases like “subsumed by the patriarchy” (like that means anything more than “the future is female”), yet subsumes Stella herself by refusing to dignify her with any personality other than being “not like other girls” (a.k.a., she’s “the most beautiful girl in the village” [p. 2], smart, “had grand breasts that trembled when she laughed and jounced hypnotically” [p. 2] and not interested in boys).

The real fallen female heroine character Grames sought but ignored was her great-grandmother and Stella’s mother, Assunta. Abandoned by her abusive husband, raising multiple children alone in that very same patriarchy, driven, determined, smart, and deeply pious, Assunta is actually inspiring in some way. She is complicated, balancing her faith with her being a single(-ish) woman in early 20th-century Italy, questioning love for men and love for God despite their ensuing pain. She is forced into marriage, into single-motherhood, and then back into the home of a husband she does not truly know or love, and yet, she persists. She is prescribed to the gender roles as they were taught to her, no doubt, yet subverts them in interesting, compelling, and overlooked ways.

Instead, Grames chose Stella, who she perverts into a stubborn, simple, and sad woman set in her characterization as the anti-man’s woman. She is a boring character that I grew more and more sad for as I continued to read the way her granddaughter chose to remember her: as the second, as a victim, as defeated, as a ghost.

I do appreciate Grames’ descriptive style; had she kept it to two hundred pages illustrating life in Ievoli in the early 20th century, recounting the toils and details of the quotidien rural Italy, this review would have been much different. Of course, the description at times can be so heavy that you feel you are drowning in the details, but what can you expect when that is so obviously Grames’ strong suit and comfort zone. And I enjoyed the way she concluded the first Stella’s ghostly existence, as it was, in my opinion, the most creative aspect of the book - after we discover that Antonio was raping his granddaughters, her ghost kills him.

By the end, I felt that I was a part of the family, and that Grames was that annoying cousin who got a book deal just to air out the namesake’s dirty laundry. Where she brought literally all of her family down, her own mother is described as “a lone renegade,” (p. 358) who “would turn her nose up at the various pitfalls of adolescence as she watched her brothers make every mistake in the book” (p. 358). Bias, yes—to be expected. But coupled with her grating, middle school level, flawed and outdated feminist perspective, it’s somewhat surprising how self-righteous Grames appears in her fictionalized family tree.

I really had to push to finish this novel. It hurt; I was so bored and so fed up by the end that I really didn’t care what happened to anyone. My partner, who I foolishly forced to buy the book before reading a page of it myself, couldn’t even bring themselves to finish it, which I understand completely. By the end, it was all so pointless, so hopeless, and so sad, that I grew to despise each turning page. I really cannot say that I recommend this novel to anyone.