“Florence in Ecstasy” By Jessie Chaffee: A Painful Struggle for Healing
When reading the title, my mind suddenly thought about a journey in Florence, among works of art and history and flavoured sweets and noisy handsome Italians driving scooters in a dangerous manner. I remembered my trip to Naples in Elizabeth Gilbert’s (or Julia Robert’s) company (‘Eat, pray, love’) and I’ve expected this reading to be like a relaxing journey in Italy. That’s how I approach ‘Florence in Ecstasy’.
About the author
Jessie Chaffee debuted in 2017 with the novel ‘Florence in Ecstasy’, a book that has been published in Italy, the Czech Republic, Russia, Poland, Turkey and Romania. The author was awarded a Fulbright Grant in Creative Writing to Italy to complete the novel, during which time she was the Writer-in-Residence at Florence University of the Arts. She lives in New York City, being a contributing writer at Words Without Borders, an online magazine of international literature. (Source: About — Jessie Chaffee)
About the book
Hannah is a young woman from Boston whose life gets out of control and who chooses to look for healing in Florence, this city- museum, the birthplace of the Renaissance, full of history, culture and intrigues of all kinds. The choice is not an accidental one, considering that our young woman is licensed in Art History. The escape from Boston turns out to be an escape from a vague past (which the reader tries to reconstruct from flashes of memories evoked by Hannah) and from her own problems. At a deeper level, it is the escape from herself. But, as running away is never a solution (as it is impossible to run away from yourself), the young woman’s anxieties and problems are not long in coming.
The story is told through Hannah’s eyes, which allows us a foray into the dark thoughts of the girl but, at the same time, limits the perspective to a subjective one. Thus, while Hannah will recall episodes from her recent past, we find out that she suffers from anorexia and the wanderings on the streets of Florence, along the river Arno, the trips to beautiful cities nearby, all marked by loneliness, will not succeed restoring her emotional balance. Because healing means, first of all, understanding the grounds that have disturbed the balance and then acceptance, forgiveness, knowledge and self-love, all this encompassing the struggle for life.
Hannah will seek salvation in physical exhaustion, imposing, in addition to the penance of starvation, the physical effort involved in rowing training. In fact, joining the rowing club will be the only occasion to socialize. The relationship with Luca (the director of the rowing club) could be a lifesaver, but will it be a deep relationship or just a surrogate meant to give Hanna the illusion of normalcy?
At the same time, reading the lives of the mystical women saints will make Hannah find herself in passages from their ecstatic delirium, and this reading will feed her psychosis in front of which she seems to surrender. ‘I have given up everything’ is the obsessive thought that guided the saints to enlightenment, but, on our heroine, it is likely to bring her down.
The heroine ‘carves’ herself physically and emotionally, splitting in two: ‘There must be a fight between me and my body’, she says. I must admit, however, that the author did not make me feel part of the struggle. I wanted more of it, a more cohesive message, but the explanations weren’t finalized (or compelling) and the heroine’s feelings did not have, in me, the expected reverberations. Something didn’t seem to bind in, like it didn’t end up forming a literary whole.
However, in the last part of the book, when I had already recalibrated my expectations, the writer surprises with the flood of the described emotions, by their intensity, along with the crazy succession of thoughts and actions that dominate Hannah. All that are making a surprisingly promising literary leap.
Do you want to know if Hannah will survive in self-imposed exile (physically and emotionally), if she will manage to win the battle with the demons of her own mind? Sit comfortably in an armchair with a Spritz Aperol, and take a trip to Florence! A book is … Lust For Flying..
To the author
Jessie, the last part of your novel intrigued me, making me look forward to your next book!
Read more book reviews by Raluca Neagu here.