Lee Smith’s ‘Guests on Earth’: wrestling with a dark legacy
Lee Smith’s new novel, “Guests on Earth,” is set at Highland Hospital, the mental institution where F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife spent time and where the patients struggle with their demons and their past.
Special to The Seattle Times
‘Guests on Earth’
by Lee Smith
Algonquin, 352 pp., $25.95
In a story that mixes fact and fiction, novelist Lee Smith revisits Highland Hospital, a real place in Asheville, N.C. Now a shopping mall, it was once a mental institution where both Smith’s father and her son spent time. Smith also paints an opaque portrait of Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of F. Scott and a “client” of the hospital on and off for many years, until she died there in 1948 in an unexplained fire.
Smith’s narrator is Evalina Toussaint, the orphaned daughter of a New Orleans exotic dancer. She is 13 when she is admitted to Highland, rescued by her father, a generous man married to someone other than her mother. He is the deus ex machina whose money and kindness make her medical care, education and musical training possible.
Evalina is seen by Dr. Robert S. Carroll, founder of Highland, and his wife, Grace Potter Carroll, “world-renowned concert pianist,” according to the adoring Doctor. His chosen regime for returning mental patients to health is humane: diet, exercise and occupational therapy, using shock therapy sparingly.
Evalina’s days at Highland are spent taking piano lessons from Mrs. Carroll, being schooled, making friends and losing them, and finally being sent to the Peabody Institute, a conservatory/prep school, for six years. There she meets and falls in love with an opera singer and becomes his accompanist — and more. When that ends badly and Evalina finds herself in New Orleans again and pregnant, she goes to see her father, to find out what he knows about her mother’s family. What legacy does she have to tell her child about? What she discovers there sends her straight back to Highland Hospital for a course of insulin shock treatments.
Evalina recovers apace and becomes as much an employee as a client at Highland, playing the piano for all the musicales. She becomes engaged to a doctor there, although she is uncertain about her feelings for him — the reader’s first foreshadowing that Evalina is not really “back to normal.” In a funny but poignant set piece, Evalina and Zelda put together a dance number for hospital patients and others, showcasing Zelda’s dance and choreography skills. That is the most the reader sees of Zelda, who is really an evanescence more than a presence. It is as if Smith is reluctant to invade her privacy.
In an epigraph at the beginning of the book, Smith quotes from a letter F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his daughter, Scottie: “The insane are always mere guests on earth, eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read.” As usual, Fitzgerald got it right and said it best.