Evalina Toussaint , the narrator of this elegant historical novel, introduces herself by saying, “For years I have intended to write my own impressions of Mrs. Zelda Fitzgerald, from the time first I 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.”
Evalina is daughter of a “fancy woman” in New Orleans. She was orphaned at the age of 13 and thrown out upon the world under circumstances so horrendous that they merited a stay in Asheville’s prestigious mental institution, Highland Hospital. Although she’s a woman of strong opinions, Evalina is deeply reticent; she will become a piano accompanist, never a soloist in her own right, despite her abundant talent.
“This is not my story, then, in the sense that Mr. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was not Nick Carraway’s story, either — yet Nick Carraway is the narrator, is he not?” Evalina asks. “Is any story not always the narrator’s story, in the end?”
If F. Scott Fitzgerald is a mythic figure in American lit, and “The Great Gatsby” a candidate for the Great American Novel, certainly Zelda carries a heavy-duty myth of her own. She embraced the role of party girl but was so unsuited to being a wife and mother that she had one nervous breakdown after another. By the time she died in the Highland Hospital fire, she had come to stand for all that could go wrong in a beautiful woman’s life, if she were too smart, too driven.
Lee Smith is an assured and accomplished writer, and her use of Zelda as a subject in “Guests on Earth” is brilliant. Her choice of Evalina as a narrator is equally fortunate because she is a woman who doesn’t have enough energy to accommodate her talent. Educated by nuns, she is utterly committed to respectable behavior. Again and again, she insists on being an accompanist only; she seems born to submit. In the sanatorium, she watches with awe as Zelda, even in illness, radiates energy.
The story moves forward at Evalina’s quiet, almost stately pace. Life at Highland is pleasant, almost luxurious: The residents — men and women — hike, read, garden, stage theatricals. Most of the time they seem perfectly healthy, except for when they don’t. Occasionally, Evalina will digress, to tell another woman’s story, which is when the reader realizes that Smith’s purpose is far more ambitious than it looks. Once, Evalina ventures off campus to spend the night with a mountain girl who lives far up in a “holler.” Her family is poor beyond words, but they make heavenly music. Another patient is genuine Southern Belle; like Zelda, she simply can’t stand the life. And there’s Jinx, a charming, murderous white-trash girl.
By the time she’s done, Smith has covered the entire spectrum of Southern women. In her acknowledgments, she writes, “I . . . have my own personal knowledge of the landscape of this novel. My father was a patient here in the fifties. And I am especially grateful to Highland Hospital for the helpful years my son, Josh, spent there in the 1980s, in both inpatient and outpatient situations. Though I had always loved Zelda Fitzgerald, it was then that I became fascinated by her art and her life within that institution, and the mystery of her tragic death.”
This is a carefully researched, utterly charming novel. By the time you finish it, you fall in love with these fascinating lives, too.
GUESTS ON EARTH
By Lee Smith
Algonquin. 337 pp. $25.95