Lee Smith’s Guests on Earth purports to be about that most Gatsbyesque of couples, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. But that’s only a superficial reading, because the novel is narrated by Evalina Toussaint, who early on asks and answers the most essential question in story telling. “Is any story not always the narrator’s story, in the end?” That’s undeniable. And in Guests on Earth, it’s fortunate because Evalina is a delight.
The book opens with a newspaper clipping about a fire in 1948 that destroyed Highland Hospital, a mental clinic in Asheville, North Carolina. Then the story jumps back to the 1930s in New Orleans where the reader is introduced to Evalina when she was a young girl. But, still, the reader knows that inferno awaits.
Evalina’s mother is larger than life with a string of lovers that seem to support her until each relationship ends. When her mother commits suicide, the last of these lovers, Mr. Graves, rashly takes Evalina home with him – begging her to forgive him as he says God has forgiven him. But instead, Evalina just loses all respect for God. Like we said, she’s a delight.
No one is happy that Mr. Graves has brought Evalina home. Not Evalina. And certainly not Mrs. Graves and her children. Sensing that the house is a grave (it is Mr. Graves’ house, after all), Evalina stops eating. Soon she is shipped to Highland Hospital. The year is 1936, and Evalina is 13. She spends much of the next 12 years at the hospital inching towards that fire.
Evalina meets Zelda Fitzgerald, another patient, who early on advises her that it is “far better to be dead than a princess in a tower.” That’s bitter medicine, but we gather Zelda knows what she’s talking about. At times Zelda is kind and generous. At other times, she is remote and cruel. At one point Zelda grabs a salamander from a child’s hand and throws it into a fire (there’s that motif, again) – much to the horror of the surrounding children. But Zelda claims she did not harm the salamander, because salamanders live in fire. She tells the children that she, also, is a salamander. Time will tell.
The hospital provides Evalina with a window on the world – where life is a kaleidoscope forcing her to continually adjust to new patterns. She also witnesses and at times experiences love’s many variations. She comes to understand that love, like life, is impossible to predict. It is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where a lover enters the forest with one person but come out with someone else.
Guests on Earth has much to say about the harsh treatment of girls and women, who either can’t or won’t conform to societal norms, during the 1930s and 1940s. This is the book’s great strength. Surprisingly, it has little to say about the rabid racial discrimination throughout society. This is the book’s weakness, and it is rather glaring.
Ms. Smith’s research is meticulous. And though the book is fiction, we believe she has captured the true character of the people who actually lived – especially Zelda and Scott. The title comes from a letter Scott wrote to his daughter, in which he states the “insane are always mere guests on earth, eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read.” For once, Fitzgerald’s imagination fails him, because it isn’t just the “insane” who are mere guests on earth.
Alison Wonderland, Editor-in-Chief and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans