Guests on Earth

Guests on Earth

by Lee Smith

Overview: The insane are always mere guests on earth, eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald

Evalina Toussaint, orphaned child of an exotic dancer in New Orleans, is just thirteen when she is admitted to Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. The year is 1936, and the mental hospital is under the direction of the celebrated psychiatrist Dr. Robert S. Carroll, whose innovative treatment for nervous disorders and addictions is based upon fresh air, diet, exercise, gardening, art, dance, music, theater, and therapies of the day such as rest cures, freeze wraps, and insulin shock. Talented Evalina is soon taken under the wing of the doctor’s wife, a famous concert pianist, and eventually becomes the accompanist for all musical programs at the hospital, including the many dances and theatricals choreographed by longtime patient Zelda Fitzgerald. Evalina’s role gives her privileged access to the lives and secrets of other patients and staff swept into a cascading series of events leading up to the tragic fire of 1948 that killed nine women in a l ocked ward on the top floor. She offers a solution for the still-unsolved mystery of that fire, as well as her own ideas about the very thin line between sanity and insanity; her opinion of the psychiatric treatment of women and girls who failed to fit into prevailing male ideals; and her insights into the resonance between art and madness. A writer at the height of her craft, Lee Smith has created, through her masterful melding of fiction and fact, a mesmerizing novel about a world apart—a time and a place where creativity and passion, theory and medicine, fact and fiction, tragedy and transformation, are luminously intertwined.

Debbie Weiss (07/31/13): This is an excellent book which gives the reader great insight into the day-to-day life in a mental institution. Evalina Tousaint was sent to Highland Hospital when she was 13, soon after the death of her mother. She spends many years there and it becomes the only home she really knows, with the staff becoming her parents and with the patients becoming her siblings. Zelda Fitzgerald, the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald is a recurring patient and character in the book, with whom Evalina seems to have a special relationship.

While the story is a work of fiction, the author had inside knowledge about this mental hospital, as her father and her son were both patients there at some point in their lives. Zelda Fitzgerald did reside here for many years, leaving for periods of time to meet up with her husband, but always returning in need of help. The book is beautifully written and Evalina is the type of character who you really care about. With the recent suicide of Robin Williams, treatment of mental health issues is front and center as a topic of conversation so reading this novel at this time was particularly timely.
Rating: ****+

Dale Israel (07/31/13): Lee Smith is a prolific Southern author from North Carolina who has written a number of great books. Guests on Earth is probably amongst her best. Taking place in Ashville, NC in the 1930's, the novel is narrated by Evalina Toussaint who poignantly describes what life was like in a mental institute called Highland Hospital. A cast of mental patients come and go throughout the years, including Zelda Fitzgerald, although her role in the book is very small. Smith is truly a gifted author. Her writing allows the reader to actually be "in the moment" --- to see, feel and smell as though you too were there. Smith provides wonderful insight into what life was like in Highland Hospital, perhaps because her father had been a patient there in the 1950's and she had a son with mental health issues. My only minor complaint was the abruptness of the ending, although it did not detract from the joy of reading this wonderful work of historical fiction. Bravo Ms. Smith! I'd rate this book a 4+.
Rating: ****+

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