Some of the best books I’ve read I can actually barely remember. I can more readily recall how they made me feel.
The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna (2019, Ecco Press), a debut novel by Juliet Grimes, fits in that category. Easily the best book I’ve read so far this year, it has stayed on my mind since I read it in March. It was the kind of novel that left me sad when I reached the last page, because I had no more of the story to enjoy.
I first picked up the book because a free copy was available through my work. I perused the back cover and thought it was interesting that Grimes, who is Italian-American, was sharing the fictional family history of the Fortunas from their roots in rural Italy and their immigration to America. It’s a bildungsroman, following protagonist Stella Fortuna from literally before her birth and on to old age. Grimes’ particular choice to precipitate the central story of Stella (who is the main protagonist of what grows to be quite a large Fortuna family) from before birth is very unique, and sets up the importance of her numerous “near-death” experiences that define the book’s title.
I absorbed this story slowly over several weeks: It is not a book to be rushed. Grimes’ lovely prose command attention. She carefully composes likable and unlikable characters who commit acts of both betrayal and loyalty to the family, defining the complicated Fortuna legacy. These characters, especially Stella, anchor the story, while all of the plot is designed to deepen our understanding of how their choices affect the complicated family dynamic.
Many times it felt like Grimes was staring into a mirror to paint a portrait of herself by writing this story. Inspired by her own family’s history enough to trace it back as far as she could, she then fabricated an idea of what might have happened. The result is The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna. Grimes includes a wonderful personal essay at the conclusion of the book to describe where she drew the line between what she knows of her family’s origin in Italy and the fictional Fortunas. I was grateful for this essay, which salved my bruised heart upon the completion of the novel.
I will not soon forget how Stella and the rest of the Fortuna family made me feel. This was a marvelous, intricate family biography unlike any other book I have read.
[I was not paid to write my honest review. Links are not affiliate.]