After a fall down the stairs a family finds itself faced with a matriarch they don’t recognize. Juliet Grames explained that when her grandmother suffered a brain injury that led to a partial lobotomy, she became a different person. “She had a miracle recovery, but she woke up from her coma literally despising her sister who had been her best friend her whole life. Her sister, who is my great aunt, she was like a grandmother to me and this close knit family had to divide in two because the matriarchs could never be in the same room again,” Grames said. “It was world-changing for me; my two grandmas couldn’t be together anymore.”
Grames was five-years-old when her grandmother had the accident that altered her personality.
In an effort to learn more about her grandmother, Hartford native Grames, penned her first novel “The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna.”
“I think I became fixated on trying to find out what happened between them and especially what had happened to my grandmother that had made her take this extreme break against her sister — what had happened in her head with this lobotomy — she couldn’t express herself the way she used to anymore. It was really hard, you couldn’t ask her a question and have her give you a straight answer, so I started trying to research her story to fill in the blanks,” she said.
“The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna” tells the story of the fictional and spunky Stella Fortuna as she grows up in a Calabrian village after World War I and her life after her family immigrated to Hartford. Stella survives a series of strange accidents and near-death experiences throughout her life — accidents that Grames said her grandmother had during her lifetime.
“She had these really bizarre accidents, the brain injury was only the eighth of many, and I didn’t know why she had this terrible luck but I did know she had a very provocative story so I wrote down eight deaths and thought maybe this is the structure with which I could tell her story,” she said.
While the book began as a quest to understand her grandmother and is inspired by parts of her life, Grames was quick to clarify that Stella’s story is fabricated.
“It’s a fictionalization of my grandmother’s story; she was born in southern Italy right after World War I and she only passed away this summer so she was almost a 100 years old and she had a life packed with adventures and misadventures and she was definitely a larger-than-life personality and a formative part of my childhood. I wanted to honor what she went through by telling her story. So I did that by heavily fictionalizing it within the novel,” she said.
Grames found that while interviewing relatives about what her grandmother was like prior to the accident, that the family’s memories of her were colored by her behavior after the brain injury.
“(What) I learned as I was writing this was that I couldn’t ever create my grandmother. I couldn’t figure out who she actually was as a person, she was medically sealed off from me,” she said. Instead of recreating her grandmother, Grames used the facts she knew as an skeleton for Stella’s story.
“The most fictional thing in the book is Stella herself,” Grames said. “I felt like my grandmother had been lost, the person she had been was completely lost. So I envision Stella as she is in the novel as someone I want my grandmother to have been able to have been, loved and respected for her intelligence and her charisma.”
Despite the novel’s tragic inspiration, Grames said the book at its heart is about the trials and tribulations of the Fortuna sisters and their efforts to have their American Dream.
Grames said she hopes readers will be inspired to ask their older relatives to share their stories and the book will spark people to connect with their grandmothers.
“The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna” will be available starting on May 7. Grames will visit the West Hartford Barnes & Noble on May 11 as part of her book tour.