Her many near-fatal mishaps aren’t as deadly as marriage and motherhood for a fiercely independent Italian-American woman in this century-spanning novel.
We know from the scene-setting preface that Mariastella Fortuna’s “eighth almost-death” led to a mysterious hatred for her formerly beloved younger sister, Tina. Debut author Grames, who based the novel largely on her own family’s history, launches it in a stale magic-realist tone that soon gives way to a harder-edged and much more compelling look at women’s lives in a patriarchal society. Born in Calabria in 1920, Stella is given the same name as a sister who died in childhood because her father, Antonio, refused to get a doctor. He heads for America three weeks after the second Stella’s birth and comes home over the next decade only to impregnate his submissive wife, Assunta, three more times. During those years, young Stella’s brushes with death convince her that the ghost of her dead namesake is trying to kill her, but that’s not as frightening as the conviction of everyone around her that a woman's only value is as a wife and mother. Stella has seen enough during her brutal, domineering father’s visits to be sure she never wants to marry. When, after a 10-year absence, Antonio unexpectedly arranges for his family to join him in America in 1939, readers will hope that Stella will find a freer life there. But the expectations for women in their close-knit Italian-American community in Hartford prove to be the same as in Calabria. The pace quickens and the mood darkens in the novel’s final third as it enfolds an ever growing cast of relatives—with quick sketches of the character and destiny of each—and Antonio’s actions grow increasingly monstrous. The rush of events muddies the narrative focus, and the purpose of the epilogue is equally fuzzy. However, a tender final glimpse of elderly Tina conveys once again the strength and hard-won pride of the Fortuna women.
Messily executed, but the author’s emotional commitment to her material makes it compelling.