Debut novel, "Florence in Ecstasy" available for purchase

The Hockessin Book Shelf will host An Evening with the Author for New York-based writer Jessie Chaffee, for her debut novel, “Florence in Ecstasy.”

The book follows a young woman’s recovery from an eating disorder as she travels through Florence on a search for meaning and fulfillment. 

We sat down with Chaffee to discuss her inspiration, and the appeal of the titular region.

Q What was your inspiration for such an intricate, complex story?
A Like some of my favorite writers, including Jean Rhys and Elena Ferrante, I wanted to explore the interior experience of a woman who has lost herself and is trying to rebuild from the wreckage—in this case, an American woman, Hannah, fleeing the demons of her past as she attempts to create a new life in Florence. While this is a contemporary story, it also about the longer history of women’s searches for meaning and expression. Hannah becomes fascinated by the lore of the Medieval and Renaissance Catholic mystical saints, women famous for their ecstatic visions who both help and haunt her.

Q What about Florence and the surrounding region appeals to you?
A As a writer, it was exciting to immerse myself in a city where history is everywhere: in the art and architecture, in the language and food, in the politics and fashion, on the soccer field. And it seemed the perfect setting for a woman trying to escape her past who ultimately finds echoes of it in the women of Italy’s past. Many writers and artists have fallen in love with Florence, and I wanted to capture those things that make the city so seductive, as well as its less-touristed, more hidden layers, like the rowing club where Hannah becomes a member, and where she is drawn into Florentine social life as she learns to scull on the Arno River.

Q What other genres do you or would you like to explore as an author?
A I was fortunate to spend a year in Italy on a Fulbright Grant to complete Florence in Ecstasy, and as I was researching the history of the saints—going to multi-day festivals in their honor in Sicily, visiting tiny hilltop towns in Umbria where they lived—I was, like my protagonist, inspired to reflect on my own past. In particular, on the women in my family, like my great-grandmother, who became leaders in Protestant churches in the US at a time when that was rare. I’m now working on nonfiction about faith, history, and the ways that women have found paths to expression through their beliefs.