When I first heard about Jessie Chaffee’s debut novel, “Florence in Ecstasy,” from her publisher, Olivia Taylor Smith of Unnamed Press, I felt a surge of initial resistance. I wouldn’t be able to read it, I thought, let alone review it. A month or two later, the book arrived in the mail, after I’d pushed it out of my mind, and I had to grapple with the question again: How does a book critic who prides herself on being able to review anything, and enjoy the process, how does this book critic handle a book in which a woman – not a girl of 12 or 14 or even 20, but a woman recently turned 30 – has an eating disorder so similar to the critic’s? The book critic, in this case, puts on her big girl pants, reads the book, and becomes engrossed in its haunting pages.

Hannah from Boston, as she’s occasionally called by the other characters, is the narrator of “Florence in Ecstasy.” She is visiting Florence, Italy, ostensibly on a vacation, but really in order to escape. Over the course of the novel, we learn of a few fundamental threads that have unraveled in Hannah’s life – her relationship, her family ties, her job, but mostly her sense of self – and this tangled mess was easier to leave behind than to comb through and tease out. In Florence, Hannah is on the verge of going broke. In the early pages of the book, we see her finding a job, somewhat too conveniently, at a library where the work is easy and where Hannah begins to feed a new obsession.

The old obsession, the one that brought Hannah to Florence, is the eating disorder I was so fearful of approaching, of reading and then writing about. The nature of eating disorders is insidious – the thought patterns stay with many recovered people, becoming another thing in the mind that is to be ignored, like the instinct to swerve off a bridge or the insecurity of imposter syndrome. To read about eating disorders is often triggering for me, bringing up hosts of memories and concerns and a dangerous longing, and so I worried that I wouldn’t be able to do “Florence in Ecstasy” justice. And yet – and yet the way Chaffee writes Hannah’s eating disorder cuts to the core of the psychology that is rarely the focus of eating disorder narratives, even though it is at the center of so many eating disorders themselves.

“I was quite comfortable with the void. I felt safe dancing along its edge,” Hannah tells us. At the start of the novel, though, she has taken a few steps away from that void, and is eager to leave it behind. She is learning how to row with a group of rowdy Italian men, including Luca with whom she may be approaching intimacy. At the same time, she is reading about Italian saints, women who flew into religious ecstasies. Women who, more often than not, started experiencing those ecstasies after they stopped eating, and whose behaviors were extreme: “Margaret cutting down to the bone when flagellating herself, Angela drinking from the sores of lepers, Maria Maddalena licking the wounds of her ailing Carmelite sisters and punishing her own body with burning and icy water…” These women were in pain, and as Hannah realizes, “The visions provide the only relief and they are addictive – once they begin, the single, consuming desire of these women is to lose themselves in ecstasy.”

Jessie Chaffee

Self-loathing, metaphorical or real self-flagellation, and the denial of one’s bodily needs – these do provide a kind of ecstasy. There’s a reason why movements promoting the discipline of eating disorders exist on the internet, that warren where anything goes. Not eating, or eating too much and then throwing it up, or just eating too much, are all behaviors that, when sustained over time, become addictive, providing the strange duality that exists simultaneously in eating disorders: absolute control on the one hand, and its utter loss on the other.

Over the course of the book, whose plot is not complex on the surface and rests heavily on Hannah’s internal struggle and the way she reads into folks around her, we see a half-heartedly healing Hannah trying to regain her ability to feed herself and do it well. But when her former boss runs into her in Florence, her past rushes back, and her struggle begins anew: “This is how it begins… I stop eating in the morning, only the morning. It isn’t so much a decision as it seems to just happen, and once it happens, it is so easy to stay with it.”

This is how eating disorders tend to work, with an ebb and flow that has nothing to do with the notion of thinness as beauty, per se, or with the images of skinny women we see on billboards and on TV and in Hollywood. Society’s fixation on unrealistic bodies does not help, but eating disorders are broader, wider and deeper, and Jessie Chaffee succeeds admirably in mining them as she depicts a woman’s journey away from her earthly self – and then back again.

Ilana Masad is a book critic and fiction writer starting her Ph.D. at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, StoryQuarterly, Broadly, the Washington Post, the LA Times and more.

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