Thursday, December 5, 2013

Guests on Earth; Lee Smith

Shannon Ravenel Books-2013

Guests on Earth begins with a newspaper article about the tragic fire in 1948, which claimed the life of Zelda Fitzgerald and eight other women at Highland Hospital, in Asheville, NC.  Zelda, although she does appear several times in the story, is not the focus of the novel.
The story is told through the eyes of a young narrator named Evalina Touissant. Evalina was the illegitimate daughter of an exotic dancer from New Orleans. After her mother commits suicide when she was just thirteen, Evalina is placed in Highland Hospital by her guardian Dr. Carroll who was the head of the hospital. Evalina, surprisingly, adapts well to life at the hospital. She spends free time reading Nancy Drew novels, and taking piano lessons from Dr. Carroll's wife. In some ways she seemed too well-adjusted considering that she had lost her own mother. She was mature beyond her years, extremely talented and a good read of other people like Zelda.  She always seemed to know what to say and how to act around the other "guests" ---for example the times when Zelda mistook Evalina for her own daughter Scottie. 
The novel's title comes from a letter that Fitzgerald wrote where he stated “the insane are always mere guests on earth......" Another reason why, Highland Hospital's residents are always referred to as “guests.”
The reader knows early on that tragedy will strike Highland Hospital before the story is over, but even though this was the case, I did not find the story too depressing.  I enjoyed reading about the workings of Highland and the activities of the "guests" who were hospitalized there for mental illness. Guests came, stayed for a while, left and came back again and again. There were many references to the friendships of the "guests",  as well as the various activities they were encouraged to pursue to stretch their imagination.

Highland Hospital certainly wasn't like some of the turn of the century mental institutions I've read about in the past. Of course, even at an upscale institution like Highland, back in the 1930's-40s, unconventional methods like lobotomy, shock therapy and insulin induced comas were used to treat clinical depression.
I liked this story and the setting and time period, but the story did feel a bit flat at times, even though the author did a good job creating some believable characters (even the minor ones).  Lee Smith is someone who is familiar with what she writes. Both of her parents suffered from mental illness and both her father and son were "guests" at Highland Hospital as well.

Guests on Earth is worth checking out. (4/5 stars)

(eGalley received via NetGalley)


  1. I've never tried Lee Smith's work but really want to because I've heard a lot about it.

  2. Thanks for your interesting review.

  3. It sounds interesting! Thanks for the review.

  4. Intriguing premise! Thanks for the review - I'm adding it to my wish list.

  5. Glad it is worth checking out as I brought it home this week.

  6. Interesting, her personal connection with the hospital. I;m not sure it would hold my attention if I already knows what happens, but Zelda is showing up in fiction a lot these days, isn't she?


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