Florence in Ecstasy by Jessie Chaffee
published May 2017 by Unnamed Press
Guest review by Jennifer Vosters
For artists, travelers, dreamers, inventors, and thinkers across time and around the world, there’s just something about Italy.
In her debut novel Florence in Ecstasy, Jessie Chaffee continues several longstanding traditions: drawing inspiration from one’s travels in and experiences of Italy, and using Italy’s geographical, historical, and cultural fabric as the background of her work. And though Chaffee does not present Florence in Ecstasy as an autobiographical novel, she (like many before her) draws generously from her own experiences to craft a work that fits into these traditions in a fresh, original way.
The result is at once highly specific and deeply universal. Hannah, Chaffee’s haunted protagonist, finds herself on Florence’s famed streets on something of a whim. Struggling to outrun an eating disorder that has cost her her job and most of her relationships, Hannah tries to break the pattern of starving herself physically and emotionally by seeking anonymity and second chances among the Florentines. She joins a rowing club. She meets a handsome stranger. She finds a job. She even tries what makes Italy most famous nowadays: the food. And she discovers a group of women she can’t forget: a collection of Italian saints who – in the miraculous visions, sensations, and ecstasies they experienced – remind Hannah profoundly of herself. Hannah’s attempts to conquer her eating disorder are interrupted by her need to understand these complicated women who sought perfection by leaving their bodies behind . . . and who were eventually honored for it.
When writing of illness, particularly mental illness, one toes a dangerous line between romanticizing the experience and stigmatizing those who suffer from it. Chaffee masterfully avoids making either of these mistakes, giving Hannah the agency she deserves while patiently, painfully describing the ugly realities of anorexia and bulimia. Hannah’s attempts to change and understand her life’s trajectory revolve around questions we ought to ask ourselves: Why do we cling to what brings us pain, and what can we do to let it go?
As Hannah dives deeper into herself, peeling back the layers of her illness to understand how she arrived at her current state, she finds kindred spirits in these bygone Italian mystics, women who rejected bodily needs, including food, in an effort to make themselves perfect receptacles for their visions of God. Viewing this kind of devotion – held up in religious circles as a pinnacle of holiness – through a lens of illness, obsession, and self-destruction is disturbing to say the least, especially as we watch Hannah recognize the strangely spiritual nature her own eating disorder takes on in her life. Hannah and the saints have each sought perfection – “holiness” – through deprivation and, frighteningly, felt utterly convinced that what they were doing to themselves was justified, important, and beautiful. So what makes Hannah’s experiences of self-denial an illness and theirs a vocation? And if their suffering was eventually their pathway to glory, how can Hannah find the will to leave hers behind?
These are the fascinating questions Hannah is never quite able to answer, just as she is never quite able to shake off her troubled past, despite the transformative opportunities and relationships she enjoys in Florence. It’s an interesting risk for a novel to take – the resolution being that there is no real resolution – and though it doesn’t quite pay off literarily, it’s a harrowing reminder that those who suffer from chronic illness don’t usually get to triumphantly banish their demons once and for all. Recovery, progress, is a series of repeated recommitments, made and broken and made again. And it makes us cheer for Hannah, a broken but resolute woman, all the more.
I lived in Italy as a student for seven months, so I would be remiss not to compliment Chaffee for her tantalizing characterization of Florence and its people, elevated to more than mere setting in Florence in Ecstasy. The city is as much a character as Luca (Hannah’s gentle, pensive ragazzo) or Lorenza (the crisply confident yet surprisingly warm librarian), and joins a richly detailed cast who make Hannah’s Italian odyssey spring to life on the page. Chaffee breathes plenty of sentimentality into the people and places she describes, but she grounds them in enough quirks and flaws to be lovable, and thus captures a great deal of what makes Italy so special: the imperfect coexists with – and complements – the sublime.
Florence in Ecstasy is not a light read, or a happy one, but what makes it unique is what keeps our fingers turning the pages. What it sometimes lacks in a tight, clear story arc, it makes up for in rawness and nerve – rather like Hannah herself. It’s a brave piece of work. And that – along with the arrival of Jessie Chaffee – is worth celebrating.
Jennifer Vosters is a writer, actor, and musician from Milwaukee. She is also a proud 2016 graduate of Saint Mary’s College in Indiana. Her writing has appeared in Slippery Elm Literary Journal, Bridge: The Bluffton Literary Journal, and National Catholic Reporter.