A young woman arrives in Florence from Boston, knowing no one and speaking little Italian. But Hannah is isolated in a more profound way, estranged from her own identity after a bout with starvation that has left her life and body in ruins. She is determined to recover in Florence, a city saturated with beauty, vitality, and food―as well as a dangerous history of sainthood for women who starved themselves for God.
Hannah joins a local rowing club and is drawn into Florence’s vibrant present: soccer mania, eating, drinking, sex, an insatiable insistence on life. But Hannah is also rapt by the city’s past―the countless representations of beauty, the entrenched conflicts of politics and faith, and the lore of the mystical saints, women whose ecstatic searches for meaning through denial illuminate the seduction of her own struggles.
A vivid, visceral debut echoing the novels of Jean Rhys, Elena Ferrante, and Catherine Lacey, Florence in Ecstasy gives us an arresting new vision of a woman’s attempt to find meaning―and find herself―in an unstable world.
Behind the Book:
A conversation with Jessie Chaffee, author of Florence in Ecstasy
From the first page, your novel has an immediate transporting effect. How do you know Florence so well? What made you want to set Florence in Ecstasy there?
Have you heard of Stendhal Syndrome? It’s also called Florence Syndrome. It’s a psychosomatic response to being exposed to great works of art. Symptoms include rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, hallucinations. It’s named for the writer Stendhal who collapsed after an ecstatic experience viewing Giotto’s frescoes in Santa Croce. I think that Florence as a city inspires that kind of response—it overwhelms you with beauty and history. It speaks straight to your soul. I experienced it when I studied abroad in Florence years ago in college—the city took hold of me. After that, I visited whenever I could and then received a Fulbright grant to live there for a year to research the lives of the female saints—who experienced their own kind of ecstasies.
One of the things I love most about Florence is the way that the past intermingles with the present. Whatever I was studying—language, history, religion, art history, cooking—was immediately available in my day to day in a way that was tangible and visceral, and also integrated. Walking through Florence, what you experience isn’t just science or art or religion or music or food or the body or the spirit in separate pieces, but all of those threads woven together. Those layers make for a rich environment for any story, and it felt like exactly the right place for Hannah’s story, particularly because of the mystical saints, many of whom starved themselves for God.
So like many writers and artists before me, Florence inspired me and it continues to inspire me.
Hannah goes to Italy to recover from an eating disorder, but Florence is decadent with excess—not only food and wine, but sex, art, history. Why set a book with starvation at its center in a country famous for its insatiable insistence on life?
Florence is a city of decadence. But in the same way that much of the beauty of Renaissance art and architecture is the result of balance and proportion, one of the (many) beautiful aspects of life in Italy is that people prioritize balance in the day to day—there’s a more harmonious relationship between work and life, for example. In the US, I think we’re used to living with more extremes and much less balance—extreme success or failure, extreme dieting, extreme work hours—and often at the expense of our health and our relationships. So Florence, and Italy in general, offers Hannah a different way of being simply by challenging those extremes, and especially, of course, the extremes of her relationship with food.
I was also interested in Florence’s contradictions. Like any city, it has it’s own hard edges. And one of those hard edges is that it’s a place where it can be difficult to be a woman, especially if you’re there alone. Whenever I’ve gone out to eat in Florence by myself, I’ve felt a little like a social pariah. There’s also an entrenched double standard when it comes to gender, and as Hannah witnesses in the men’s treatment of another female character, women are often pegged as either saints or sluts. And unlike some other cities in Italy—Rome, for instance—it’s hard to be anonymous in Florence. In that way, it feels like a small town, so if you get caught up in the gossip or intrigue, there isn’t really anywhere to hide.
And, of course, that Florence is a city filled with history, food, bodies, and beauty makes it an interesting—and complicated—backdrop for a woman who is fleeing her history and her body.
One of the first things Hannah does after she arrives is to join the Florence rowing club. What is the importance of the club, and the experience of rowing?
Because Florence runs on tourism, you could spend weeks there and not get off the well-worn routes or connect with the people who live there. But there are a lot of beautiful, hidden places within Florence, where it is possible to experience the “real city,” and the rowing club is one of those places. Ironically, the club is directly underneath the Uffizi Gallery, one of the most visited sites in the city, but it is a different world, and one that is dominated by Florentines.
I wanted Hannah to descend into this kind of underworld out of curiosity and also as a way of saving herself. Joining the club allows her to connect with the members and rejoin society, especially when she becomes involved with one of the men there. Most importantly, though, I wanted to have Hannah reconnect with her own body, which she is actively at war with. Rowing requires peace of mind, balance, and connection. If you’ve ever been in a scull, you know that you are incredibly vulnerable and you can feel that vulnerability with every motion. It doesn’t take much to throw you off course. The only way to hold a straight line is to be centered—in your body and your mind—to be, in some sense, at one with yourself and the boat and the water. So the rowing club makes Hannah more vulnerable—physically, when she is out on the water, and emotionally, as she connects with the other club members. And she needs to experience that vulnerability if she’s going to survive.
Hannah starts to study the lives of female saints and discovers the long history of women who starved themselves for God. Why are the saints important to Hannah’s story?
Early on in the novel, Hannah visits the Basilica of San Domenico in Siena, where she runs into her first saint—St. Catherine. I was stunned by what I found when I first visited myself—literal pieces of the saint. Her mummified head and her finger are on display in glass cases inside the basilica. St. Catherine is one of the most well known saints, and for good reason. She was born in the 12th century to a middle class family who expected her to marry. Instead, she rebelled and devoted her life to God. She shaved her head, slept on a board, stopped eating, prayed incessantly, wore a chain with small hooks around her waist that would draw blood, and eventually grew so ill that her parents consented to her entering the church. Like many of the saints, she had ecstatic, sensual visions in which she said she was communing directly with God—in one, she experienced a mystical marriage to Jesus (complete with Jesus’s foreskin as her wedding ring). You can imagine what kind power such visions would have given her. And she used that power and became politically active, even traveling to France to convince the Pope to return to Rome. That this young woman in the Middle Ages could have so altered the trajectory of her life and become one of the central figures of the church is astounding to me.
At the same time, her celebrity was also due to extreme behavior. She drank pus from the sores of the sick during the plague, she had people jab her with needles when she was in a trance, and she practiced extreme fasting. She died at the young age of 33, likely from starvation, as the only thing she consumed besides water was the communion.
St. Catherine wasn’t alone—many of the saints starved themselves. But there’s a deeper resonance for Hannah, because it’s really the saints’ searches for meaning, their desire for something more, and their experiences with ecstasy that speak to her. The first images of St. Catherine that she sees—in that same basilica in Siena—are frescoes that she relates to right away. In one image, St.
Catherine is healing a woman possessed by demons—the woman is writhing on the ground underneath the saint, who stands stoically above her. In the second fresco, St. Catherine is in an ecstatic state; she looks like she herself is possessed. Hannah, who has experience her own kind of ecstasy, and clarity, through starvation wonders which of these women she is—the calm saint or the madwoman? Catherine in ecstasy, or the woman possessed? And in that moment, she feels a profound connection with St. Catherine, and it’s a connection that grows as she learns about the other saints.
This is not a novel about a woman finding religion, but the saints help Hannah understand her relationship with anorexia in a way that no one else has been able to.
Who are some of the saints you discovered in your research for the novel that you find especially intriguing?
Definitely St Catherine, who I just mentioned, but also two lesser known, but still extraordinary, women. St. Rita, from the 15th century, is really a populist, women’s saint. She’s the protector of victims of abuse—especially domestic abuse because she survived an abusive marriage before entering the church. She became incredibly popular among women, who connected with her story, and that popularity inspired her canonization. St. Rita is also the saint of the impossible—impossible because on her deathbed, she asked one of her sisters to bring her a rose from her childhood garden in near Cascia in Umbria. It was the middle of winter, but still there was a fresh rose growing. On St. Rita’s feast day the churches in Florence—and in many other cities—are filled with women of all ages holding roses to be blessed.
St. Agatha is also fascinating. She was an early Christian martyr from Catania, Sicily. She was tortured by the Romans and they ultimately cut off her breasts. In Catania, there are images of her everywhere holding her breasts on a plate, and even pastries shaped like breasts in her honor. Not surprisingly, she’s become a symbol for the fight against breast cancer. I attended the annual festival celebrating her, and I was amazed by the transformation of Catania. A million people—almost all Italian—were there to watch as a carriage holding an effigy of the saint was dragged up and down the hills of Catania, pulled by hundreds of devotees for three days straight. Children performed skits about her life, teens carried lit candles equal to their body weights, there were multiple huge fireworks displays, and the Benedictine nuns—enclosed for the rest of the year—came out to sing for Agatha as the carriage passed. I tried to imagine what it would be like to be a young woman in that city where the most important day of the year celebrates not a man, but a woman, almost two thousand years after her death. It was extraordinary.
Why did you want to write about a woman with an eating disorder?
Even though Florence in Ecstasy centers on a woman struggling with an eating disorder, I hope that it will speak to anyone who has struggled to find meaning and who has found themselves alienated from their lives because of addiction, depression, unhealthy relationships, or just the inevitable challenges in life that threaten to upend us. The eating disorder was Hannah’s response to a larger existential crisis, but it could have been anything. At its core, this is a book about the experience of losing yourself, and of trying to rebuild out of the wreckage, whatever the cause.
Do you have a personal experience with an eating disorder? Are there any other novels that deal with an eating disorder that you are aware of?
Yes, it was something I experienced myself. I was an adult. I had made it through my teenaged and college years having always had a fairly healthy relationship with food and my body, and so suddenly finding myself struggling with anorexia was completely unexpected and terrifying, and also embarrassing because I felt I was too old for this kind of illness. Though it was relatively short-lived and I made a full “recovery” (which I’ll put in quotes because I think, like any addiction, it stays with you), I remained deeply unsettled and haunted by the months when I had disappeared from my life, from my body, from myself.
This book came in part out of a “what if”? What if I hadn’t had the support that I did, what if I hadn’t been able to pull free of it? It also came out of a “why”—why this? why me? why now? I went to where I always go for answers—literature. I found some excellent memoirs exploring anorexia—including Caroline Knapp’s Appetites: Why Women Want. But most of the fiction was built on an assumption—and one I had shared prior to my own experience—that eating disorders only affect a certain kind of person: adolescent women or young women. But of course that isn’t true. We live in a culture that is obsessed with the body and with beauty, and body image issues and disordered eating are pervasive—they affect women and men of all ages. Yet there are few novels that grapple with these disorders head-on, and even fewer that go beyond the understanding of them as a modern, adolescent phenomenon to explore their broader prevalence and longer history. It was important to me, for example, that my protagonist not be a teenager or a young adult. She’s almost thirty and yet is struggling with this “adolescent disease.”
I’ve given readings in all different types of communities in the US and also in Italy—to young adults and adults, for literary series and at academic conferences. And almost without fail, there will be someone—and often several people—who approach me afterward to share their own experience with an eating disorder. I want this book to reach those people. It is the book that I was looking for when I almost disappeared, and I hope that it might help other disappearing women and men to find their way back to themselves.
What does the “ecstasy” in the title refer to?
Partially to the saints’ experiences with religious ecstasy which I found so fascinating—they had fiery, sensual, consuming visions in which they felt they were communing directly with God, visions that they describe as both fulfilling and painful because they create an insatiable desire, like a high that you can never quite get back to. Hannah’s experience with anorexia is similar—it provides its own kind of ecstasy, and also a false sense of clarity—it fills a void and becomes her meaning, her philosophy, her church.
The greatest challenge for Hannah is letting go of the disorder because, like so many addictions, it is seductive, it is a relationship—an abusive relationship, but a relationship nonetheless. Hannah needs something to replace that misplaced desire. While the title is a nod to the saints, it is also about an ecstasy that is spiritual in a broader sense, and a kind of ecstasy of place—in this case, Florence. Because it is ultimately Hannah’s relationship with the city that enables her to reconnect with herself and with her body, to form connections with other people, and to experience a kind of fullness and wholeness—an ecstasy—that is not just the body or the mind or the spirit, but all of those things intermingled. And it is that connectedness that gives her a glimpse of the possibility of finding ecstasy, of finding meaning, of finding herself outside of and without the disorder.