Guests on Earth by Lee Smith

17433973For years I have intended to write my own impressions of Mrs. Zelda Fitzgerald, from the time I first encountered her when I was but a child myself at Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1937, and then a decade later during the several months leading up to the mysterious tragedy of 1948.

What it’s about: After her mother commits suicide, 13-year-old Evalina is committed to a mental hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, where she grows up, learns to play the piano, and encounters famous fellow patient Zelda Fitzgerald.

Why I liked it: It is strange that I have not until now read a book by Lee Smith, as we are practically neighbors. Her latest novel was a good one with which to make her acquaintance. She writes about one of my favorite places on Earth, Asheville, with such familiarity and natural imagery that I was transported there in my imagination. She treats her large cast of characters in this historical novel with equal care.

I was not quite expecting this book to be what it was. When you know a novel is set in a mental hospital, you form certain preconceptions. But Smith’s characters come off as anything but crazy. Perhaps they find it more difficult to control their emotions or to deal with the world than so-called normal people. For the most part, they seem to have been put in the hospital mainly because their families didn’t know what else to do with them, because they either wouldn’t or couldn’t fit into the roles established for them. This seemed especially true of the women.

The patients and staff at the hospital become orphaned Evalina’s family: parental figures, sisters, even lovers. They seem to craft an almost utopian existence within the confines of the hospital, a creative life filled with art, dance and music, and a deep connection to the world of natural beauty that surrounds them. Smith doesn’t really delve into the darker aspects of the hospital, the shock treatments, for instance. Instead, she carefully portrays her characters as fully human, worthy of our compassion and understanding.

Evalina leaves the hospital after the well-known fire that took Zelda’s life, as well as the lives of eight other patients. But she never seems “cured.” Instead, she accepts herself and those whom she loves, and stops attempting to slot herself into a world where she doesn’t quite fit. Her story is absorbing, her life quiet but satisfying.

Who might like it: Readers who like historical fiction, especially about women, or who are interested in Zelda Fitzgerald.


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