by Fran Withrow

After I finished “The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna,” I turned to the beginning again, wanting to refresh my memory for this review. Fifteen minutes later, I was still reading, charmed all over again by this engaging novel. Author Juliet Grames is a master storyteller, and I fervently hope her first foray into fiction is not her last.

Stella Fortuna is a beautiful girl who grows up in Italy, and, though her name means “Lucky Star,” you will have to decide yourself just how fortunate she is. Throughout her life, she has near misses with death: everything from a catastrophe involving an eggplant (death number one), to a strange encounter with a pig, to a “stupid doctor.” Her father, who is a nasty human being, is absent for much of her childhood. He eventually settles in America, and, many years later, insists that his wife Assunta, son Luigi, and daughters, Stella and Tina, join him there. On the cusp of World War II, Assunta feels she has no choice but to leave her beloved Italy, so the family travels to Connecticut, where Stella’s brushes with death continue.

Stella and her younger sister Tina have a close relationship, and Tina is always nearby when one of the catastrophes happens. Is this a coincidence? It becomes more puzzling when we realize Tina is actually the one who relates Stella’s story to the narrator of the book.

Our captivating narrator relates the story with rich color and vivid images, a tale so beguiling you don’t want it to end. Pondering the meaning of love, the courage of women, and the ties that bind us all together, the book is seamlessly written and beautifully laid out.

For Stella, life goes on after each near fatality. She tries repeatedly to stand up to her domineering, wicked father, but women at that time had few rights. Despite her resistance, she is forced into marriage, and has child after child, always supported by her mother and her loyal sister Tina. When Stella chokes on a chicken wing (death number seven), Tina saves her, and Stella says, “Tina, I almost died.” “I know,” says Tina. “It’s been a while.” The constant undercurrent of dry humor adds even more life to this book.

When Stella undergoes emergency brain surgery which alters her personality (death number eight), she is convinced Tina has always been the one sabotaging her. Is that true? Or is there a ghost who has been trying to kill Stella all her life? As a consequence, she refuses to see her sister. In the end, the narrator visits first Stella, now in her 90’s, then goes across the street to see Tina. “I love her,” Tina says of Stella. “I always love her. Maybe you can write that.” “Yes, I will write that,” says the narrator. And then they focus on making little meatballs, because when life is perplexing, there is always food.

“The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna”

By Juliet Grames

$27.99

Harper Collins

464 pages