...[a] thoughtful, provocative first novel ... The novel’s pleasures arise from the jostling together of elements that vitalize and dimensionalize its story: the beauty and rhythms of the fabled city, its locals and visitors, seasons, festivals, food and drink, surrounding countryside and townships, art and architecture, and, never least, the music of the Italian language (a sprightly character unto itself, easily understood because of the deft way Chaffee sets it in context) ... Never didactic, never an infomercial, Florence brings readers on a gentle tour of the glorious city and adjacent areas, of its habits, history, art and books. At the same time, the novel examines some of the ways an anorexic mind perceives the world and itself.
Like the appealing anguish of those women's lives, Florence in Ecstasy is a beautiful but exhausting novel. Hannah is perpetually precarious; every accomplishment feels hard-won, and every loss feels inevitable ... As you might expect, this is not a light beach read; it is something that must be taken in small doses and savored page by page. But if you can ride out the unyielding waves of pain, there is a classic but reimagined narrative at work here: a person's existential reckoning on unfamiliar soil. In this case, a woman on the edge, in a liminal city that sits between the past and the present, searching for her missing body — which is to say, herself.
[I became] engrossed in its haunting pages ... 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 ... 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.
The prose is both rich and restrained, eschewing the cliché of melodrama ... Her intimacy with her disorder is convincingly painted like a dysfunctional romantic relationship, sometimes even like an artist with a dangerous muse. Chaffee treats Hannah’s story with both respect and honesty, displaying not only diligent research but also an emotional intuition that brings Hannah to startling life and makes her story quite moving.
It’s upsetting to witness her precipitous decline. At the same time, the novel never fully explains how or why the disorder developed; Hannah herself seems mystified by its sudden appearance. Still, since eating disorders usually manifest in adolescence, and not in 20-something adults like Hannah, the story begs for a bit more detail. An enigmatic but engaging debut.