I’m one of those people who loves reading but considers life way too short to spend time on a so-so book. If you want to maximize your time spent with books this summer, and also escape to Italy in your mind, read on…
Florence in Ecstasy (Jessie Chaffee)
Florence in Ecstasy is Jessie Chaffee’s first book, and a remarkable debut it is. Usually, my genre of choice is historical fiction. I love getting lost in the streets of Florence long ago. It’s fascinating to me because Florence seems like a city living in the past. The Renaissance, the Medici family- they are everywhere you go. But now and then I pick up a book set in modern-day Italy. Usually it’s about an American woman seeking answers about herself or seeking a second chance of some sort. There’s usually a lot of navel-gazing involved, which makes me feel slightly embarrassed about my own obsession with the part of me that exists in Italy. Think Eat, Pray, Love and Under the Tuscan Sun (both great reads).
But Florence in Ecstasy is no jaunt to Italy on a whim. It’s about a young woman, Hannah, arriving in Florence on the verge of being completely broken, and about her struggle to heal and start over. She becomes fascinated with the self-flagellating saints of centuries ago, mystical women who suffered and starved until their asceticism became ecstasy. In a way, she can relate, and she envies their success in reaching the pinnacle of their existence. But they all died young of their own self-deprivation. This fact is not lost on the reader, even as Hannah skirts the issue.
The author gives heart-wrenching tangibility to Hannah’s struggles as she oscillates between striving to heal and succumbing enthusiastically to darkness. The book was simultaneously hard to take and impossible to put down. While reading in a public place the other day, I winced and said “no!” out loud, drawing puzzled looks.
Among the treats in this book, I greatly enjoyed learning about some of these saints, women who were either deeply disturbed or deeply blessed, or both. And of course, I loved walking the streets of Florence through the author’s words…
“It is still early enough that I witness the complex choreography of Florence in the morning, when it is owned by the Italians, and I take in the sights and smells and sounds as though I might carry them all back in my person. The urgent voices of two men who hurry by me, gesticulating wildly; the young mother weaving her children through the tight streets with a repeated ‘Andiamo, ragazzi, andiamo!’; the crowded coffee bars, humming with conversations; the ding of so many small spoons dropped onto saucers, and the smell of sweet pastries slid onto plates…” Yes, please.
The Birth of Venus (Sarah Dunant)
I’m not typically one to read the same book multiple times, but I’ve read this one twice, so far. Sarah Dunant creates a captivating character in Alessandra, an upper class teenaged girl growing up in Renaissance Florence with intelligence and an artistic drive that render her out-of-step with the confines of society. The mysterious painter who joins the household to grace the family chapel’s walls with his frescoes is also a tortured soul. The pages turn quickly for me as these characters navigate the beautiful and dangerous times they live in.
Though the book is fiction, real people from the era operate just beyond the edge of the page, including the famous Medici Lorenzo the Magnificent, the crazed, puritanical monk Savonarola, the artists Botticelli and Michelangelo. The book is haunting and very revealing about what it must have been like to be a woman in Renaissance Florence.
Take my advice- Pick up this book and just read the prologue, braced for a shock. You won’t put it back down.
In the Company of the Courtesan (Sarah Dunant)
Then, if you enjoyed that, try this one by the same author next. This novel is set in Venice during the Renaissance and, like The Birth of Venus, it also follows the life of a smart, charismatic female heroine. However, the similarities end there. Where The Birth of Venus is certainly edgy and even crass at times but mostly sweet, smart and heartbreaking, this book vacillates between carnal, erotic and downright crude. It’s fantastic.
The story follows the life of a beautiful, cunning prostitute, but is told from the perspective of her business manager (read: pimp), a long-suffering but not at all humorless dwarf. They narrowly survive the 1527 sacking of Rome and painfully claw their way out of ruins and into a powerful place in high society Venice. Both characters, fully devoted to and dependent on each other, are almost completely lacking in any scruples. Their relationship is fascinating, as are the various twists and turns of the plot. His physical appearance is as disturbing as hers is bewitching, and they both know that the strangeness of their partnership is part of her allure.
As with The Birth of Venus, this work of fiction also has the shadow of reality just around every corner. Our courtesan is said to be the model for Titian’s famous “Venus of Urbino,” a beautiful, frankly erotic work that currently sits in the Uffizi in Florence. It’s one of those paintings that doesn’t seem like a big deal nowadays, but likely would have been embarrassing to see with your parents back then. And one of the characters in the story, in fact the nemesis of our courtesan, is the poet Pietro Aretino, who was in reality a writer of what was considered erotica in the 16th century.
This is yet another page-turner by Dunant. She’s so good at painting realistic, well-rounded characters and plopping them into her vibrant picture of history.
Next on my list-
I’m currently reading Across the Big Blue Sea by Katja Meier, and so far so good. It is Ms. Meier’s (a Swiss-born social worker) true account of her work with 5 young Nigerian women refugees. During the summer of 2014, they were pulled from their dilapidated boat by the Italian coast guard and dropped into an old Tuscan hill town. From there, things got complicated as cultures clashed and bureaucracies frustrated. This is a poignant and important read for the times we live in today, and I’ll tell you about it later in the summer. Or if you finish it first, let me know what you think.
Happy Reading and Buon Estate (Happy Summer)!