A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of 2017
“Chaffee’s fierce debut brings Hannah’s struggles, discoveries, and sweet triumphs to life.” (Claire Messud, author of The Burning Girl and The Woman Upstairs)
“There’s an absorbing story here, a love story, a coming-of-age story, a gorgeous portrait of the city itself, its beauty and its decadence, but there’s also the thrilling glimpse of a brilliant young writer just setting out.” (National Book Award-winner Alice McDermott in The Atlantic)
A young American 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, where Francesca, a welcoming but predatory Milanese, and Luca, a seemingly steady Florentine with whom she becomes involved, draw her into Florence’s vibrant present: the complex social dynamics at the club, 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 self-imposed isolation and ecstatic searches for meaning through denial illuminate the seduction of her own struggles.
Both sides pull Hannah in: challenging her, defeating her, lifting her up. And when a figure from her past life in Boston reappears, threatening the delicate balance of her present, Hannah’s feverish personal excavation becomes caught up with the long history of women’s contention with body and spirit, desire and death.
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.