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, a period of her life that was so decadent and reckless it would leave Zelda permanently unhinged, shut away for the rest of her life in clinics and mental institutions throughout Europe and the United States.
Highland was her final stop. In 1948, a fire ripped through the top floor of the hospital's central building while firefighters, alerted too late, watched it burn to the ground. Zelda was one of nine women who died in that locked ward.
Lee 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 for years she was going to write. No stranger to mental illness, Smith witnessed it 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, 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 off to Highland as a ward of Dr. Carroll, the director and chief psychiatrist, and his wife, a former concert pianist.
Evalina, 13, quickly recovers and adapts to life at the hospital. 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.
Zelda, whose passionate creativity and desire to be reunited with her husband are at war throughout the novel, 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, 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. The talented teen 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.
Most of the high-spirited, rebellious, outspoken women who populate Guests on Earth would not be considered insane now.
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.
'Guests on Earth'
By Lee Smith
Shannon Ravenel Books. 352 pp. $25.95.