Guests on Earth: A Novel

by Lee Smith

(Shannon Ravenel, $25.95, 352 pages)

Who is this author?

Lee Smith, who makes her home in North Carolina, is an experienced writer of popular contemporary fiction set in the South and has published 13 novels and four story collections. Her best sellers include “Fair and Tender Ladies” and “The Last Girls,” which won a Southern Book Critics Circle Award. Smith also has been honored with the 1999 Academy Award in Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the North Carolina Award for Literature.

What is this book about?

“Guests on Earth” takes its title from F. Scott Fitzgerald, who once said: “The insane are always mere guests on earth, eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read.”

An apt quote, because this novel imagines the last years of Fitzgerald’s beautiful but very fragile and troubled wife, the artist and dancer Zelda, who perished in a mysterious fire in 1948 at Highland Mental Hospital in Asheville, N.C., locked in with eight other female patients in the facility’s top-floor ward, with only a charred ballet slipper found by which to identify her.

Here is what Smith says about the story: “In this novel I offer a solution for the unsolved mystery of that fire, along with a group of characters both imagined and real, and a series of events leading up to the tragedy. My narrator is a younger patient named Evalina Toussaint, daughter of a New Orleans exotic dancer. Evalina is a talented pianist who connects to Zelda on many levels as she plays accompaniment for the many concerts, theatricals, and dances constantly being held at Highland Hospital.

“As Evalina tells us at the beginning of this novel, “I bring a certain insight and new information to that horrific event which changed all our lives forever, those of us living there upon that mountain at that time. This is not my story, then, in the sense that Mr. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was not Nick Carraway’s story, either—yet Nick Carraway is the narrator, is he not? And is any story not always the narrator’s story, in the end?”

Evalina is just 13 in 1936 when she is admitted, an orphan and a piano prodigy who is content to be an accompanist, never a star. Treatment by Dr. Robert Carroll is enlightened for its time, with an emphasis on fresh air, good diet, exercise, gardening and the arts, along with now outmoded insulin shock and freeze wraps. But it is primitive by today’s standards and labels as insane any women who did not meet the prevailing male ideas of behavior. As Evalina’s personal story develops in and out of the asylum, we get glimpses of Zelda’s sad denouement and meet piquant characters representing various types of Southern women of that day.

Why you’ll like it:

Smith has a large following, who love her books for their understanding of how women live and think and prevail. Here she offers a deft blending of sad fact and imaginative fiction, and a possible solution to the never-solved puzzle of how the came about. Readers get a historical novel, an illuminating look at medical practices of not so long ago and  stories of several fascinating women.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “Zelda Fitzgerald is fictionalized and given a supporting role in Smith’s chronicle of a girl whose life is changed by a North Carolina mental institution. In 1936, after her mother’s suicide in New Orleans, 13-year-old Evalina Toussaint is sent to live at Highland Hospital. There, she’s mothered by Grace Potter Carroll, the director’s wife, who gives Evalina music lessons and a shot at a normal life. Evalina also meets F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, who swings from sweetness to cruelty, and often mistakes Evalina for her daughter Patricia. Mrs. Carroll and Evalina grow apart as the latter leaves Highland to attend school and eventually become engaged. When tragedy strikes and Evalina finds herself once again at the hospital, the Carrolls are no longer in charge, though Zelda remains among the changing crop of patients. At this point, the book becomes truly engaging, as Smith introduces characters like the charming Dixie Calhoun. Evalina also finds herself smitten with groundskeeper Pan Otto, who was found locked in a cage as a child, and doctor Freddy Sledge. Many tragedies pepper the narrative, including the fire that bookends the story, all of which are handled in a touching manner. Smith’s novel takes a while to blossom, but really takes off once it does.

Says Booklist:  “Abandoned as a child upon her mother’s death in New Orleans in the 1930s, Evalina is sent to Highland Hospital . . . by her mother’s wealthy lover—a convenient way of dealing with an inconvenient problem. Evalina may be a lot of things—a budding musician, a romantic dreamer—but mentally ill she is not. Yet over time, the mental hospital becomes her home and its staff and fellow patients her family. Celebrated for its unorthodox treatment methods, Highland attracts the penniless and the notorious, and Evalina is influenced by a nearly feral young man and the hospital’s most famous patient, Zelda Fitzgerald. Equally creative, emotive, independent, and adventurous as Zelda, wife of the renowned author F. Scott, Evalina also contradicts society’s standard for female behavior, guaranteeing that no matter how often she escapes or improves, she will always return to Highland. Riding the recurring wave of Zelda-mania, perennially best-selling Smith presents an impeccably researched historical novel that reveals the early twentieth century’s antediluvian attitudes toward mental health and women’s independence.”

Says The Washington Post: “The story moves forward at Evalina’s quiet, almost stately pace. Life at Highland is pleasant, almost luxurious: The residents — men and women — hike, read, garden, stage theatricals. Most of the time they seem perfectly healthy, except for when they don’t. Occasionally, Evalina will digress, to tell another woman’s story, which is when the reader realizes that Smith’s purpose is far more ambitious than it looks. Once, Evalina ventures off campus to spend the night with a mountain girl who lives far up in a “holler.” Her family is poor beyond words, but they make heavenly music. Another patient is genuine Southern Belle; like Zelda, she simply can’t stand the life. And there’s Jinx, a charming, murderous white-trash girl.

By the time she’s done, Smith has covered the entire spectrum of Southern women. In her acknowledgments, she writes, “I . . . have my own personal knowledge of the landscape of this novel. My father was a patient here in the fifties. And I am especially grateful to Highland Hospital for the helpful years my son, Josh, spent there in the 1980s, in both inpatient and outpatient situations. Though I had always loved Zelda Fitzgerald, it was then that I became fascinated by her art and her life within that institution, and the mystery of her tragic death.”

“. . . This is a carefully researched, utterly charming novel. By the time you finish it, you fall in love with these fascinating lives, too.”

 “Indeed, most of the high spirited, rebellious, outspoken women who populate Guests on Earth would not now be considered insane at all. Smith’s imaginative, layered story illuminates the complexity of their collective plight—to be put in towers until they had no choice but to behave—and rescues them one by one,” says The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library has this book on its shelves.

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