Many will pick up Lee Smith’s “Guests on Earth” to again be swept into the irresistibly tragic and titillating life of Zelda Fitzgerald; there’s been a surge of historical novels this year about the wife of “The Great Gatsby” author F. Scott Fitzgerald. But just as Zelda’s life consisted of much more than just being Scott’s wife, Smith’s novel is much more than just a story about Zelda.
Zelda, in fact, plays only a minor role in this engaging and engrossing novel — Smith’s 11th. The focus of “Guests on Earth” is narrator Evalina Toussaint, a piano prodigy and daughter of an exotic dancer admitted to North Carolina’s Highlands Hospital mental facility in 1936. There, she plays the piano during patient concerts and other events, which gives her the chance to meet doctors, patients and others, both real and imagined.
The real characters include Zelda, psychiatrist Robert Carroll and the institution itself, which is as lifelike as any of the quirky array of people Evalina meets. Fictitious elements include the cause of the monstrous 1948 Highlands fire that killed Zelda and eight other women patients and remains unsolved. Smith, in fact, uses the fire to both start and finish “Guests,” which is written in a prose as beckoning as the “orange-tipped flames laced with black and white” that leap into and fill the sky over the hospital as Evalina watches it burn.
Evalina is not a patient at Highlands for the entire story. But going back to its location in the mountains plays a key role in not just what becomes of her, but in who she becomes. Her journey also allows Smith to explore what she calls “the very thin line between sanity and insanity,” as well as show how even people struggling with mental illness can live meaningful lives.
It’s a struggle Smith has seen firsthand. Both of her parents and her son suffered from mental illness. Her father and son each spent time at Highland. Today, the facility looks little like the one Zelda or Smith’s Evalina stayed in. But Smith clearly wants readers to understand that within it, and similar facilities, are people with the “bright lives” that Evalina sees.
Smith’s well-developed characters, rich historical detail and easy prose create a novel that some may call her best yet, and which it just may be.
Cindy Wolfe Boynton is a Connecticut-based freelance writer and writing instructor.