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Mental hospital looms large in Smith's 'Guests on Earth'

| Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

It's the spring of 1937 when Evalina Toussaint, the narrator of “Guests on Earth,” first catches sight of Zelda Fitzgerald, wearing black tights and ballet slippers and smoking a cigarette, on the grounds of Highland Hospital in Asheville, N.C.

By then, Zelda had been married for 16 years to F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was so infatuated with the Montgomery belle when they first met that he wrote the same line to her over and over: “I used to wonder why they kept Princesses in towers.” Never having been imprisoned, Zelda found Scott's fantasy annoying, never dreaming that she was soon to embark on a life so decadent and reckless it would leave her permanently unhinged, shut away for the rest of her life in clinics and mental institutions throughout Europe and the United States.

Highland was to be her final stop. In 1948, a fire ripped through the top floor of the hospital's central building while firefighters, alerted too late, watched the building burn to the ground. Zelda was one of the nine women who perished in that locked ward.

Smith (“On Agate Hill,” “Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger”) has long been haunted by that mysterious fire and says “Guests on Earth,” her 13th novel, is a book she knew she was going to write for years. No stranger to mental illness, Smith witnessed it firsthand in both her parents. Her father was a patient at Highland in the 1950s, and Smith's son, Josh, spent time there in the 1980s while battling schizophrenia.

The title comes from a letter Fitzgerald wrote in which he observed that “the insane are always mere guests on earth, eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read.” Highland's residents are never called patients or inmates. They are always “guests.” Smith weaves the story around Evalina Toussaint, a piano prodigy and daughter of a New Orleans courtesan whose affair with a local married man turns tragic.

After her mother commits suicide, the shattered child is shipped to Highland as a ward of Dr. Carroll, the director and chief psychiatrist, and his wife, a former concert pianist.

Thirteen-year-old Evalina quickly recovers and adapts to life at the hospital, reading Nancy Drew novels and warming to the piano lessons she takes with the doctor's wife. Her permanent residency means Evalina will make many “chums”: A cast of characters that shrinks and expands over two decades, their lively backstories sometimes threatening to swamp the novel's forward momentum.

She befriends a doomed Southern belle named Dixie; a kitchen girl named Ella Jean who plays banjo and sings; a fierce veteran of foster homes and reform schools called Jinx; and Zelda, whose passionate creativity and desire to be reunited with her husband are at war throughout the novel, and who becomes Evalina's mentor.

New doctors arrive, and “guests” improve, leave, and sometimes return, including several young men to whom Evalina develops tender attachments.

Though Zelda makes many vivid appearances, I'm happy to say that “Guests on Earth” steers clear of fictionalized biography.

Instead, Smith uses Evalina and her fellow patients as a hall of mirrors reflecting Zelda's tumultuous, frustrated life and to examine the nature of mental illness, especially the views of the day on women and madness.

Evalina's story most closely parallels Zelda's. A talented teenager, she leaves the safety of Highland to pursue her music studies and eventually becomes a skilled accompanist. But her brilliant career is cut short when she falls for a charismatic opera singer and follows him around the world, finally ending up in her hometown, New Orleans.

There, her husband's infidelity and drinking (shades of F. Scott) eventually take their toll, and Evalina returns to Highlands.

Smith's portrait of the hospital smoothly incorporates a history of the era's “progressive” treatments for mental disorders: healthy diet, exercise, insulin shock treatments, a horse-serum procedure in which equine blood was injected directly into a schizophrenic's cerebrospinal fluid, and the newly trending lobotomies, some administered with an icepick by a doctor in a “Lobotomobile.” Most of the high-spirited, rebellious, outspoken women who populate “Guests on Earth” would not now be considered insane at all.

Smith's imaginative, layered story illuminates the complexity of their collective plight — to be put in towers until they had no choice but to behave — and rescues them one by one.

Gina Webb is a staff writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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