Guests on Earth by Lee Smith
Evalina remembers living in New Orleans. She remembers the sign that read, “Girls, girls, girls,” and that her mother was a courtesan. She remembers Bourbon street and a man who came to adore her mother. She remembers living in a big house after her mother dies, but then she remembers getting sent to Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina.
At first, Evalina just rests, but eventually she becomes a part of the community in Highland and that’s where she grows up, alongside the well-known Zelda Fitzgerald, who also lived at Highland. She learns to play the piano and goes to Peabody, which is where she meets a young tenor. They marry, but things aren’t good in the marriage.
Evalina leaves her husband to teach piano lessons on her own, but something terrible happens to her and she ends up right back in Highland. She grows to make friends there and even becomes part of the staff. Zelda shows back up. Evalina has always been fascinated by Zelda.
Life goes on for Evalina and she develops a couple of romances at the hospital, both a bit scandalous in their own way. Evalina is there at the hospital until one night when the fire starts. It’s the fire that would burn down an entire building and take the life of Zelda Fitzgerald. Life goes on for Evalina, but not in the way one might hope.
What I liked
Lee Smith write some wonderful books. They’re about the South and about traditions and people, who could very well be real, some of them are, or were. Zelda was a real person and she really did die in a fire at Highland Hospital. This place is actually pretty close to where I live, so I’ve seen some of it, although, I haven’t been inside any of them yet.
Several of the buildings that were part of the hospital are still in Asheville. They’re up on a hill, all supposedly haunted. The buildings serve other purposes these days other than a hospital.
I like that Lee spun this entire book centering on one event. It’s loosely a biography of Zelda Fitzgerald, but our main character is still Evalina.
I liked that I was able to go and see this place; it lends more to the story when I can go see a place setting in a book.
What I didn’t like
I feel as if Evalina never overcame her mental illness. In truth, no one ever really gets rid of a mental illness, they’re only managed, but a person would think that Evalina could have gone out and been a normal member of society. She did this, to an extent, but she wasn’t your average member of society. She was part of society, but a part that there was something off about her. I don’t know how I can get this across any clearer. Her mental illness stayed with her, and although she was at a level where she could live on her own, she was still markedly mentally ill, in my opinion. I don’t think she reached that level that she should have to go and live out in the world on her own. Sure, she did it, but it would have been better had she reached a stronger point in her mental stability.
Mental illness is a weird thing though. It can come back when a person least expects it. Evalina may have never been fully a “regular” person. Her mental illness may have come back after the book ended, but honestly, I think she was still there.
Part of me, kind of wants to slap Evalina. She has a mental illness, yes, but the triggers of this illness weren’t necessarily that bad. I’m sure the things that happened to Evalina were awful to her, but people have been through worse and still been mentally stable. I guess the point is that everyone is different and mental illness still isn’t a well-defined concept. What makes one person go off the deep-end isn’t necessarily going to make another person go off the deep-end.
In a lot of ways, this story is sad and tragic, but for those who live, life goes on, mentally ill or not.
Do you think Evalina would have ever been “normal”?
What do you think was going on with Evalina?