Published by A Shannon Ravenel Book
Publication date: October 15th 2013
Guests on Earth: A Novel by Lee Smith is the story of an orphan, thirteen-year-old Evalina Toussaint, who, after her mother dies, is sent to the Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, because she stops eating. Highland is a renowned mental health institution knowing for principles of healthful eating and activity as a cure for mental and emotional problems. It is here that she meets the mercurial Zelda Fitzgerald, in an art therapy class. Zelda delights Evalina by helping her make dozens of paper dolls that they dress using scraps from around the classroom. They go so far as creating a castle for one of the dolls, whom Evalina crowns as princess. It is as Zelda grabs the doll and crushes it, saying
“It is far better to be dead than be a princess in a tower, for you can never get out once they put you there, you’ll see.”
that Evalina realizes she may not be as care-free and fun a grown-up as she had thought. Later, they come together again at Highland, each in celebration of their passion in life, only to have it end in tragedy.
Evalina grows up at Highland Hospital, a hybrid patient/boarder. She has a talent with the piano and is coached by the head doctor’s wife, Mrs. Carroll, whose determination, matched with Evalina’s gift, gets her accepted at the Peabody Institute for college. It is here that her life in the real world begins and despite the very adult things she’s witnessed at the hospital, she is still a sheltered girl. From having every moment of her day planned for her by trustworthy caretakers, she is suddenly able to make her own choices and does—with mixed results.
Although Evalina vows in the beginning to be writing this novel about Zelda Fitzgerald and not herself there are simply too many fabrics, in different colors and textures, for the end result to be about any one person. Instead Guests on Earth is a quilt of the South with its broke-down, eccentric, cruel, lively and loving characters. Evalina’s life alone could carry the novel with an exotic dancer mother, a love affair with a famous tenor, and the patients and staff who become friends that populate her world. Yes, there are scenes with Zelda and her life history is part of the novel’s plot but, it is not the focus of the book. In this year of Baz Luhrmann’s remake of The Great Gatsby and two strong fictional works focused solely on Zelda’s life, Guests on Earth is not a Zelda book and may disappoint if that’s what you want. But if you want to experience the lushness of early 1900s South, outrageous characters, and the unexpected turns any life can take, then this is a book to be enjoyed.