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May 18, 2017

Book Notes - Jessie Chaffee "Florence in Ecstasy"

Florence in Ecstasy

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Jessie Chaffee's novel Florence in Ecstasy is a stunning debut.

Claire Messud wrote of the book:

"Jessie Chaffee's protagonist Hannah finds herself in Florence far from home, unseen, unknown, estranged even from her body: in the most literal sense, in ecstasy. Chaffee's fierce debut brings Hannah's struggles, discoveries, and sweet triumphs to life."

In her own words, here is Jessie Chaffee's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Florence in Ecstasy:

Florence in Ecstasy follows an American woman, Hannah, who has fled to Florence from Boston in the wake of an eating disorder in an attempt to remake herself. She joins a local rowing club, where she is drawn into the city's vibrant present—complex social dynamics, soccer mania, fraught love affairs, and an insatiable insistence on life. She's simultaneously rapt with Florence's past, and in particular the stories of the Catholic mystical saints, women famous for their ecstatic visions and for starving themselves for God. I wrote the novel over seven years and in different settings—NYC, Virginia, Michigan, and Florence itself—and every time I hit a wall, I would take a walk and listen to music to figure out a way forward. While the backdrop of my walk changed, the soundtrack remained fairly consistent, a mix of favorite American and Italian artists, some of whom show up in the book. Much of this music reflects the interior lives of both Hannah and the saints as they grapple with the relationship between desire and pain, disappearance and existence, isolation and connection. Some of the songs capture the explosive vivacity of Florence, and others embody its aching and sometimes melancholic beauty.

"Poison Cup" by M. Ward

M. Ward has been a favorite of mine for years because of the haunting and timeless quality of his music and his voice. This particular song, which describes love as a poison cup, captures for me Hannah's experience with anorexia, as well as the ecstasies of the Catholic saints with whom Hannah becomes enamored. Like Hannah's self-starvation, the saints' ecstatic visions are a double-edged sword, both fulfilling and negating—as St. Angela describes, "All at once she was filled with inestimable satiety, which, although it satiated, generated at the same time inestimable hunger." The extreme behavior that Hannah and the saints practice is destructive but, like any addiction, also incredibly seductive and consuming, and so when they are in the grips of it, they are all in. I also love this song's slow crescendo, which feels right for the experience of losing oneself and for the physical and emotional ecstasies that populate the novel.

"Down To Zero" by Joan Armatrading

There are many descents, disappearances, and rock-bottom moments in the book. Hannah comes to Florence after losing everything in Boston—her job, her friends, her relationship, and, after months of not eating, her body. Florence is a Hail Mary, an attempt to remake herself in a place where no one knows her. Initially, she's isolated and untethered—as she describes, "I'm propped up here without a backdrop." Then she joins a local rowing club that is located on the banks of the Arno River directly under Florence's Uffizi Gallery. Hannah descends into this kind of underworld out of curiosity, and also as a way of saving herself.

"Fade Into You" by Mazzy Star

I love the dreamy melancholy of "Fade Into You," and its ambiguity—like "Poison Cup," it speaks to the seductive quality of disappearing into a person who may or may not love you back, and who may be the thing that undoes you completely. Hannah describes her experience with not eating as a kind of masochistic love affair, and having lost herself once to the disorder, she's afraid of disappearing back into it again. Beauty is also everywhere in the book because it's everywhere in Italy, and I think "Fade Into You" embodies the haunting beauty of Florence.

"L'Estate Addosso" by Jovanotti

No Florentine soundtrack would be complete without Jovanotti (or "Jova"). One of Italy's biggest pop stars, his voice is ubiquitous. When I saw him in concert several years ago, I realized that his appeal crosses generations, as there were young children, seniors, and everyone in between in the packed stadium. I selected "L'Estate Addosso"—one of Jova's recent summertime hits—because it captures the sense of freedom that pervades Italy in August, when the cities are literally empty of Italians, who are all on vacation, as Hannah discovers. The book opens right in the transition from summer back into fall, and so Hannah sees Florence transformed with the locals' return. The beat and energy of the song conveys the new vitality of the city and also the spirit of the rowing club, an intensely social and life-affirming place that upends Hannah's previously isolated and anonymous existence.

"O Fiorentina" by Tifosi Fiorentina

This is the fight song of Florence's soccer team. Hannah experiences the passion and mania of a soccer game early on in the book. One of the most remarkable things about Florence is how very present history is, and as Hannah discovers, the soccer match is more than sport—caught up within it are the centuries-long regional rivalries that are still viscerally felt. At a certain point, the cheers and jeers of the crowd become frenzied and the stands devolve into chaos.

"Well-Tempered Clavier" by M. Ward

While Hannah is initially at odds with Florence—alone and weighed down by the humidity, claustrophobia, and tourists—she slowly begins to understand its rhythms. Much of this is because of the rowing club, where she begins to connect with other people, and also to reconnect and make peace with her own body, which she has been actively at war with. When you're in a scull, it doesn't take much to throw you off course, and the only way to hold a straight line is to be balanced and centered—in your body and your mind—to be, in some sense, at one with yourself and the boat and the water. "Well-Tempered Clavier" expresses that sensation of being in tune—with a place, with a person, with oneself—and the euphoria and beauty of those moments when things coalesce in a way that the world, and your place within it, makes sense. Hannah experiences this on the water, in the city, and also up in the hills that surround Florence.

"Sotto Le Stelle Del Jazz" by Paolo Conte

Hannah slowly becomes involved with Luca, another rower at the club. While Florence is a city with its own challenges and hard edges, it's also filled with joy and beauty. And as Hannah witnesses in Luca's interactions with the other men at the club, there's a lightness and playfulness to the culture, a refusal to remain overly serious—and I think you can hear that in Paolo Conte's music.

"Who by Fire" by Leonard Cohen

I listened to a lot of Leonard Cohen while writing this novel. His music is soulful, raw, beautiful, and also somewhat tortured, all qualities I wanted to infuse the book with. Many of his songs also grapple with questions of belief. Hannah comes to Florence wanting to rebuild herself and with a lot of questions—she's searching for something to replace the comfort and meaning that she found in not eating. She discovers some answers in the stories of the saints—including St. Catherine, whose mummified head Hannah stumbles upon in Siena, and St. Angela, whose words, "I stripped myself of everything," resonate with her. This is not a book about a woman finding religion, but the saints help Hannah to understand her own struggles. So she goes deep into the stories about these women from the past, famous for faith, but also for their extreme behavior—including self-starvation—and for the ways in which they were martyred. "Who by Fire" speaks to those stories, and also to the experiences of all those who are lost, saints or not.

"Buckets of Rain" by Beth Orton (with M. Ward)

I love this song—both the original Dylan and the Beth Orton/M.Ward cover (sadly not available on Spotify)—which feels right for Hannah and Luca's relationship. While they're drawn to each other almost immediately, neither of them imagines they're embarking on a great romance—it's something quieter, less sweeping, and more unexpected. They're both at war with themselves, and there are many ways in which they are not good fit. But they find comfort in each other, care for each other in a way that is real and that works. And they're both romantic pragmatists—life may be sad, and may be a bust, and their being together doesn't negate that, but it tempers it. Much of their romance also develops during the rainy season in Florence—those weeks in late fall/early winter when the skies open up frequently and without warning, drenching the city.

"I'm on Fire" by Bruce Springsteen

After Jovanotti, "Il Boss" might be the second most-played pop star in Italy—his music is everywhere. One of his songs is playing in a moment in which Hannah is beginning to question her relationship with Luca as she considers all of the parts of herself, and things about her past, that she doesn't want Luca to know about. Desire is an important part of the novel, and Hannah's desires are in competition—she's drawn to Luca, she's drawn to the saints, and she's also drawn to the consuming experience of anorexia.

"How To Disappear Completely" by Radiohead

Radiohead was on my personal playlist while I was writing Florence in Ecstasy, and this song in particular echoes Hannah's interior state when she's not eating, an experience that is both horrifying and euphoric. Hannah is struggling with her divided selves—the self that starved her but that she also loves, the self she wants to become but also resents, the person she can be and the person she will never be. She's trying to figure out which of these people she is, and if there's a single driving question in the book, it's whether Hannah is going to figure that out or if she's going to slip back into the disorder and literally disappear. In some ways, Florence doesn't allow you to disappear because socially it operates like a small town. But there are nooks and hidden places within the city, and then there are the hills around it—a kind of maze of winding roads where you can both connect with nature and get lost in it. So this song also speaks to the scenes that occur in the hills. Radiohead happened to be on tour one of the summers I was in Florence researching, and they performed up at Piazzale Michelangelo, an overlook nestled into the hills above the city. The first night I attended the concert itself; the second night I sat with a friend in the hills outside of where they were performing—you could here the songs perfectly as they echoed through the dark landscape and drifted down over the city, becoming Florence's soundtrack for those few hours.

"You Still Believe in Me" by M. Ward

It seems appropriate to end where we began, with M. Ward. While there are a lot of dark moments in the novel, it isn't a story devoid of hope, and this beautiful instrumental cover of the Beach Boys song "You Still Believe in Me," filled with both relief and longing, expresses that hope.

Jessie Chaffee and Florence in Ecstasy links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

Kirkus Reviews review
Publishers Weekly review

The Rumpus interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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