Jessie Chaffee‘s Florence in Ecstasy is the most luminous debut novel I have read in a very long time. Imagine, if you will, a darker and more literary version of Elizabeth Gilbert’s popular spiritual seeker’s memoir, Eat Pray Love. This is not to diminish Gilbert’s memoir, which I loved, but Chaffee offers a much deeper dive into the dark night of a woman’s soul.
Hannah, a young American from Boston, goes to Florence, Italy to heal herself after her professional and personal life back home has disintegrated due to her anorexia. Surely, in life-loving Italy, where every meal is a celebration, Hannah can heal her disturbed relationship with food and her own body. Similarly, Eat Pray Love, with its luscious descriptions of Italian cuisine and Gilbert’s rejection of dieting in favor of buying a bigger pair of jeans, deals with body image issues and is often recommended reading for women and girls recovering from eating disorders.
But Chaffee’s novel, unlike Gilbert’s memoir, is no easy-going, feel-good read. Hannah’s eating disorder is her secret shame that eats away at her very soul. It’s a demon lurking in the shadows that could jump out and possess her at any moment. It interferes with her attempts to make friends at a rowing club and it threatens to derail her budding love affair with a sympathetic Italian man.
Hannah finds herself at nothing less than a life-or-death struggle to find her equilibrium. Although a secular, non-religious person–she dismissively tells her Italian friends that her mother’s religion was yoga–Hannah finds unexpected inspiration and illumination in the lives of Italian female saints. One day while working in a private library, Hannah discovers The Book of the Blessed Angela of Foligno. A shock of recognition floods Hannah as she recognizes her own experience mirrored in the life of this medieval saint. Like her, Angela fasts to transcend the pain and shame of being born in a female body. Through her fasts, Angela receives ecstatic visions and finds a path of holiness.
I stripped myself of everything. Of all attachments to men and women, of friends and relatives, and even my very self. . . . My soul languished and desired to fly away.
In the context of their own era, these female saints were rebels who resisted a life of forced marriage and child-bearing by rejecting their very female embodiment and all the social baggage and oppression that went along with it. They sought to escape the body by soaring into pure transcendence–a temptation that still beguiles women like Hannah today. Although most Western women no longer have to endure forced marriage, it’s rare for any woman in our culture to have an undisturbed relationship with her own female body. To let oneself go and simply enjoy good food without guilt or self-consciousness.
One thing Chaffee portrays so well is how a disturbed relationship with food has become so normalized among women and girls in our culture–even in women who don’t have full blown eating disorders. On the feast day of Santa Reparata, early Christian martyr and patron saint of Florence, Hannah sits with her Italian friends at an outdoor restaurant table on the piazza. While the men joyfully feast on pasta, Hannah and the other woman present sip white wine and pick at their salads. Meanwhile Saint Reparata herself has been completely eclipsed by the pageantry of a male sports competition. This is a stark meditation on how, even in life-loving Italy, the misogynist elements of our shared Western culture demand that women not only diet to stay slim, but to literally erase themselves, negate themselves, disappear.
Even on this day that honors her, Santa Reparata is invisible. The malleability of history, the ease with which she had been erased, is chilling.
Will Hannah also allow herself to be literally erased and consumed by her eating disorder? The lives of the female ascetic saints serve both as cautionary tales and a path of transcendence as Hannah follows them deep into the labyrinth of her own inner darkness and attempts to seek her own path back into the light.
Mary Sharratt is on a mission to write women back into history. Her acclaimed novel, The Dark Lady’s Mask: A Novel of Shakespeare’s Muse, drawn from the life Aemilia Bassano Lanier, is now in paperback. She is also the author of Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen, inspired by one of the most creative women of all time. Visit her website.