Florence in Ecstasy by Jessie Chaffee

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.

Florence in Ecstacy

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.



  1. Oh boy. That sounds like a huge risk-comparing eating disorders of today to the saints who starved themselves in history. I like when books take this kind of risk though, it makes them worth reading, and it furthers our discussion as a whole. New perspectives are always useful 🙂

    • I also thought it was a huge risk and was impressed by her courage in taking it on. I also thought the author balanced writing about the disorder and not being consumed by it/glamorizing it very well. – JV

  2. That was an interesting review. I don’t have any personal connection with eating disorders but your arguments about the analogies the author was making were persuasive. What felt different was the writing as I didn’t notice until the end – Guest reviewer Jennifer! Melanie, I must be used to the way you write, though I’m sure I couldn’t explain it.

    • Jennifer is more serious than I, likely because she is closer to her schooling (2016 graduate), whereas I tried hard to be ACADEMIC for years after I was finished and then realized there’s lots of room for silliness. And swears.

  3. A beautiful and haunting review, Melanie. What a powerful way to start the new year: “Why do we cling to what brings us pain, and what can we do to let it go?” I love seeing you share these guest posts. It’s great to hear new voices occasionally. Have you read this novel? What made you decide to post this review so early in the year?

    Jennifer Vosters: I’m glad that Chaffee left you with quite a bit to digest! I completely agree that there is a fine line between the horrors and romance of mental illness. Hannah’s character certainly seems to have agency! That said, did you find Chaffee’s writing entered and left the romantic and horrific elements throughout, or evenly walked the tight-rope? Do you feel like Hannah’s story was resolved?

    • I usually post reviews when they’re ready to go, assuming I didn’t post something the day before. Jennifer asked me a while back if she could review this book, which I have not read. I know she lived in Italy for, I believe, two semesters after she was my student in 2013, so I was interested to see what she had to say!

    • Hi Jackie,
      Those are great questions. I think Chaffee certainly flirted with both the romantic and horrific elements but always in balance, so we could catch glimpses into Hannah’s kind of affection for her illness as well as her fear of it. I think her story was resolved in the sense that we left her in a place where she knew more than before, but we don’t get a clear sense that she has conquered her condition forever…which is probably the stronger literary choice, to be fair.

  4. This sounds amazing and is a great review. I can’t really bear to read books about EDs as I have a close friend with a long-term one and even though you think it would be good to read about it, not so much in fact. But I’m glad people are writing about this stuff, if that makes sense?

    • It definitely makes sense, Liz. Some topics get too close to us and it’s hard to read. Ever since a very good friend of mine committed suicide, I take comments and stories about the topic way, way more seriously.

  5. This autobiographical novel sounds really interesting. I can’t say I’m inclined to read unhappy, heavy reads these days–fiction is an escape for me–but I might add this one to my TBR.

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