Jessie Chaffee finds the words I have not been able to locate and the emotions I have not been able to describe in her novel, Florence In Ecstasy. The various descriptions of Florence in this book perhaps trump the story itself, one of a young woman who travels to Florence to find herself while dealing with a serious eating disorder.
The prologue alone pulls Florentine moments from my mind and morphs them into sentences. Chaffee beautifully characterizes the city of Florence. She writes from the point of view of the protagonist, Hannah. Upon waking up, Hannah describes the city that lays below her “steeply pitched balcony” (Chaffee, 3):
Tourists “fill the piazza around the Duomo, who line up at dawn to be the first into the Uffizi Gallery, who haggle and hassle at the Mercato Centrale, who shout at the buses that lumber down the narrow streets and heed no one, who walk the bridges with gelato dripping down their hands in the evenings and watch Italian bands playing the Beatles. A manic, frenzied movement repeated day after day, night after night. They are looking up, always up. Up at the frescoed ceilings of churches; at the parade of Madonnas in museums; at the oversized head, hands, and feet of the David; at the performers dressed as mummies who move only at the sound of money in their jars; at the buildings edged in angels that circle and circle” (Chaffee, 3).
This novel does a beautiful job illustrating that a new city doesn’t always mean personal change. However, it can be a welcome assistant to mental and physical development. Many people travel or move to new cities for a change of pace or as an escape, much like Hannah does in the novel. However, there are often unrealistic expectations we place upon these new cities. We expect them to heal us, to strip us of our problems and replace them with revelations and self-discovery. But, as Hannah discovers, that change begins within yourself, regardless of what city you may call home.
Additionally, the city’s energy is described in a romantic, yet affective, way. When Florence shuts down for the night, the city is truly asleep. Chaffee describes, “it isn’t the soft closed of American cities — the change in hours or the farther walk for groceries — but an imperative rest that shutters all the shops” (Chaffee, 28).
The story line that was most intriguing, was that of Hannah’s eating disorder. In a city known for amazing food I was interested in how Chaffee would describe Hannah’s outlook on the pasta, pizza, and gelato that define this culture. Hannah’s relationship with the incredible cuisine of this city was new to me. Instead of gorging on appetizers, bolognese, and bistecca, she fears it. Hannah thinks, “I curse this lunch,” and tries to convince herself that eating is “healthy, like the vines, like the olive trees, I tell myself. This is good” (Chaffee, 100). But once the food actually arrives, it’s “too much”. When the “bruschetta comes, [she cuts] the bread in half, pick[s] the tomatoes off and eat[s] them slowly, pushing the crusts to the side” (Chaffee, 100). While I enjoy the meals I have each night, Hannah wishes for “a natural disaster” to happen to “upend [their] table” (Chaffee, 100).
This perspective is one I didn’t think about when coming to Italy. In a country that revolves and relies so heavily on food, how does that affect those who have a difficult relationship with eating? I can’t imagine the pressure one must feel to both clean their plate as an act of politeness, while also limiting themself to what they feel comfortable eating. Chaffee’s work helps to illustrate that internal disarray.
This book has opened my eyes to challenges I may not be able to see in those around me. Chaffee has shown me that while a city can help facilitate change, it does not hold the power to make change happen. Instead, a new city can help you understand more about yourself and allow you to feel comfortable enough to create whatever personal change you feel is necessary.
Chafee, Jessie. Florence in Ecstasy. PGW, 2017.