In Jessie Chaffee’s debut novel, Florence in Ecstasy, a young American woman, Hannah, flees from Boston to Florence in the wake of a debilitating eating disorder. Hannah joins a local rowing club, where she becomes involved with an Italian rower, Luca, and is drawn into the city’s complex social dynamics. After taking a job at a Florentine library, she finds herself rapt with the city’s past—the stories of the mystical saints, women famous for their ecstatic visions and for starving themselves for God. The novel was published by The Unnamed Press in May 2017
Just before lunch the next day I find St. Angela.
I’m reshelving books, grateful for the redundancy of the task, for the appearance of a new subject in my mind with each text as I slide it into place. In the daylight, the previous evening is unreal, me naked in the bathroom as impossible as the intimacy in Luca’s car. I had survived the night, more than survived it, yes—and still.
And then St. Angela appears. I’m not looking for her, and if I were, I wouldn’t have looked here. The Book of the Blessed Angela of Foligno—a slim volume sitting on the shelf at eye level as though waiting for me. It doesn’t belong in this section. Someone had been careless. Lorenza would be horrified. I pull the book out. It is old, yellowed, and as I leaf through it, the pages seem as though they might disintegrate in my hands. The back cover is gone, the last paragraph ends midsentence, and there are no numbers on the binding. I flip through, looking for any other markings, and a phrase jumps out at me—
I stripped myself of everything.
—just a flash of words quickly lost to the turning pages. I flip back in the opposite direction, and then reenact the first motion, the crumbling paper fanning out behind my thumb, until I find the phrase again.
I stripped myself of everything. Of all attachments to men and women, of friends and relatives, and even my very self.
I read it and then read it again. The words find their way in, settle somewhere deep. And they do not settle gently.
I stripped myself of everything.
Last night, shivering and sobbing in the bathroom, the panic mounting.
Even my very self.
And then this morning, fear. Even before I remembered its cause, it was there. The knowledge that I had slipped, that past woman reemerging, violent and biting at my heels.
And there is something else, something beneath the slip, beneath the impulse that drove me to the bathroom, drove me to my knees, stripped of everything, again, as it had so many times before. Even my very self. It is the feeling that it inspired. The familiarity of being in that place, even with the tears and panic. The certainty it promised, alone but not alone. I stripped myself of everything. I’d been eating better, sleeping better, thinking about it less, and still it had reappeared. The thing that says, This isn’t behind you, as though it would never be behind me, its hooks too deep in me to loose, and already I can feel its draw, can feel my old friend waiting, that friend for whom I’d lost everything before and for whom, I fear, I would gladly lose it all again. I stripped myself of everything. It is the last year of my life. It is every moment in every bathroom. Even my very self. It is every lie I told, every person I lost, every piece of myself that I let fall away—though the truth is that I didn’t just let it fall away, a passive onlooker. I stripped it away, actively, violently, proudly. All of it. Even my very self. It is as though St. Angela has reached out to me from the past and placed a hand on my heart and a hand on my throat. I stripped myself of everything. It compounds and compounds and compounds.
And so instead of returning St. Angela to her improper spot and meeting Luca at the club as I’d said I would, I lock the library’s door, carry the book to the Arcelli Room, and settle in by the sunlit window. There is a brief introduction. Born into a wealthy family, Angela married young, and her transformation came only after tragedy—the death of her children, husband, and mother. She entered the Third Order of St. Francis and, like St. Catherine, she experienced a mystical marriage to Christ. The rest of the volume is Angela’s account, or the account recorded by her confessor, a Franciscan friar, and the translation is archaic. It opens with “Treatise I: Of the Conversion and Penitence of the Blessed Angela of Foligno and of Her Many and Divers Temptations.” The pages that follow are the eighteen spiritual steps that led to her conversion. The many ways Angela had sinned, the tests that she endured before she was saved. Then her instructions on how to live according to the controlled existence of faith. All solemnly penned, all carefully measured.
But even though the writing is restrained, St. Angela’s devotion is not. When her mother, husband, and children die within months of one another, she grieves but is also grateful—the loss answers her prayer that she be freed of all earthly things. What kind of woman is grateful for her family’s death? I stripped myself of everything. And when Jesus appears to her, the images are grotesque: Christ shows her his wounds—the hairs plucked from his eyebrows, every spot where his body has been scourged—and instructs her to drink from the gash in his side. What can you do for me to match this suffering?
The cadence of the words, the repeated language of love and pain, becomes hypnotic, lulling me.
Until I reach step eighteen. I forgot to eat, Angela confesses.
I forgot to eat. I’d said that phrase—used it—so many times. It was an easy cover, especially at the beginning. I wasn’t alone— women say it all the time, with pride, with pleasure. Oops! I was too busy. I forgot to eat. Though it is innocent, there is a challenge in it, too: Try to prove me wrong. Angela’s fasting isn’t unique, especially not for a devoutly religious person in the Middle Ages. Food is just one of the earthly pleasures she is stripping away. What is strange isn’t the fasting, but what it inspires. Because it is in forgetting to eat that Angela first experiences an ecstatic vision: The fire and fervor of such divine love in such a degree that I did cry aloud.
And there is something that is missing, a gap between the loss of sustenance and the onset of visions. I reread the section—it is only a few lines—two, three, four times, looking for some acknowledgment of the connection between the denial of food and the moment of ecstasy. But there is nothing, no explanation for why these two experiences occur together in this final and, presumably, most vital step of Angela’s conversion. No sense that they are connected at all. They simply exist side by side. I forgot to eat. I began to have visions. The gap remains, unacknowledged. And it is this that gives me pause. Why? I am not Christian, am not enamored with the love of God that fills Angela. But there is something in it that I know, that is mine.
“Hannah, you can’t forget.” This was the mantra of the doctor I saw at my sister’s insistence, waiting each week in a roomful of women much younger than me, some of them with their mothers, and I wondered if they were all waiting for my daughter to arrive. It was June, I was jobless, I was alone, and so my only task was the assignment she gave me: to keep a journal of everything I ate.
I looked not at this doctor but at the photos over her shoulder of the smiling women, all younger, who must have been the lucky ones. Healed.
Two teaspoons of milk.
It wasn’t hard. I’d been doing this for months already in my mind.
One salad, no dressing.
One piece of cheese.
There was something about seeing it on paper, though, stripped down to its parts, that made it more expansive, even as each week this woman looked at the journal and looked at me:
“Hannah, do you understand what will happen to you?”
Three sticks of gum.
One glass of wine.
“This isn’t enough.”
But it was more than enough, my bloated list a permanent reminder. It was too much for me to look at, though I did look—before our sessions I read over the words again and again, hoping they would suffice, like the people I used to see on the train each morning, hunched over tiny Bibles with their lips moving silently as their fingers traced the lines, the passages read and reread so many times that the pages wore thin and the ink smudged, one word bleeding into the next.
In the Arcelli Room, the clock chimes one thirty, and outside on the river, a boat passes. Four bodies I know, Luca in the second seat, his features indistinguishable but his movements undeniably his own, and I almost duck before I remember that he cannot see me, the sun’s reflection off the windows hiding what would only be a tiny pinpoint of a figure to him. The boat disappears under the bridge and I keep my eyes on the water until it reappears going the other direction. Then I return to my reading. When the clock chimes two thirty, I unlock the library’s door, return to my desk. The men will be having lunch at the club, chuckling as Luca recounts our evening and confesses, perhaps, that I’m odd, sad, una donna particolare. Or maybe he won’t tell them anything. Maybe he is instead waiting for me to appear. When the clock chimes three, I imagine him leaving, confused at my failure to arrive.
A few hours later, I lock the door behind the last student and return to my seat by the window, the river now dark and silent. As St. Angela describes her visions, I have again the sensation that this woman who lived so many centuries ago is here in the room with me. In ecstasy, she sees herself without a body and without a soul, as she had always wished to be . . . as if she no longer existed. I knew that feeling. I had felt something of it. I had disappeared, too.
Where are you?—my lover on our last night together, when my mind kept drifting, when I couldn’t stay with him.
How did you get to this point, Hannah?—Claudia after it all came apart.
I defended myself to them, but I was lying. I was always lying in those days. I didn’t know where I was. And I couldn’t remember anything. I was somewhere else. I was someone else. I was gone.
I am continually in this state, St. Angela writes. It seems I am no longer of this earth. And when I am in this state, I do not remember anything else.
Jessie Chaffee is the author of the debut novel Florence in Ecstasy (Unnamed Press). She was awarded a Fulbright grant to Italy to complete the novel and was the writer-in-residence at Florence University of the Arts. Her writing has been published in Literary Hub, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Slice, and Global City Review, among others. She lives in New York City and is an editor at Words Without Borders. Find her at www.JessieChaffee.com.