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Guests on Earth: A Novel by Lee Smith

Guests on Earth: A Novel

by Lee Smith

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3667729,640 (3.45)50
  1. 30
    Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler (betsytacy)
  2. 10
    Zelda: A Biography by Nancy Milford (betsytacy)
  3. 00
    An Inconvenient Wife by Megan Chance (BookshelfMonstrosity)
    BookshelfMonstrosity: Set about 40 years apart (the 1890s and the 1930s), both Guests on Earth and An Inconvenient Wife compellingly portray the effects of societal pressures on women, their treatment in mental institutions, and the effects of electric shock therapy.… (more)

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Showing 1-5 of 79 (next | show all)
interesting read but it never really went anywhere. felt more like short stories, loosely connected and lacking depth. ( )
  mfabriz | Jun 26, 2017 |
Well written and enjoyable. ( )
  HeatherMS | May 20, 2017 |
I liked this but I found myself thinking 'This is not plausible' or feeling like I could see the narrative gears grinding the plot into place which interrupted my enjoyment of the novel. ( )
  laurenbufferd | Nov 14, 2016 |
Evalina Toussaint is orphaned when her mother, an exotic dancer in New Orleans, slips into depression and addiction. After Evalina also begins to exhibit signs of depression, she is admitted to Highland Hospital in Asheville, N.C., a psychiatric facility owned by Dr. Robert Carroll, whose innovative mental health treatment for the late 1930s include included fresh air, exercise, gardening, and music and art therapies. Mrs. Carroll, the doctor's wife, a famous concert pianist, agrees to further Evalina's piano lessons until she becomes the accompanist for all the Hospital's theatrical productions, which are generally choreographed by noted patient, Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of the famous author.

Under the hospital's care and attention, Evalina improves and is eventually discharged to attend and eventually graduate the prestigious Peabody Institute. She marries a fellow musical artist who eventually abuses her resulting in a second admission to Highland in her mid-20s. Hospital life continues similar to before until destroyed by a fire, which mysteriously began in the kitchen. I enjoyed the institutional life depicted at Highland Hospital in this historical novel setting in the mountainous area in and around Asheville in the first half of the 20th century.

The author's depicted well Dr. Carroll's treatment milieu, staff-patient relationships and the patients' symptoms well. Although some believed Zelda Fitzgerald to have schizophrenia, I believe the author adequately described her behavior more as bipolar disorder. One problem I had with the novel was keeping track of the various staff and patients, which I thought was too many. She would have been better, as some authors do, to provide some triggers to help the reader's memory. It didn't help that I discovered several errors where names of the characters were changed. Additionally, I thought one of the characters description of the causes of depression were anachronistic for the time. During the early 20th century, the genetic attributes and brain chemistry regarding roots. depression were not believed. Depression was still considered to have psychological flaw.

The novel direction appeared to be headed toward the 1948 fire. Ms. Smith built suspense by insinuating through character descriptions who may have set the fire in the novel's climax. However, when the event finally did occur, there was too little drama around this event given the impact it had on Highland Hospital. ( )
  John_Warner | Jan 19, 2016 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I’d been waiting eagerly for Smith’s latest book, Guests on Earth. In this novel, as in Fair and Tender Ladies, we first meet the narrator, Evalina Toussaint, as a girl. Evalina, the soon-to-be-orphaned daughter of a New Orleans exotic dancer, is an altogether different creature than Ivy: unsure of herself, carried along life’s eddies and unwilling to chart a path for herself. She does gain the opportunity to attend music college—but recognizes that she’s happier as an accompanist, using her playing to highlight the accomplishments of others. While both girls are highly observant, Ivy charges into the world, while Evalina watches it from a remove.

Evalina spends much of her life in and out of Highland Mental Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina—the hospital in which Zelda Fitzgerald spent much of her adult life and where she died in a fire, trapped in a locked ward. So this isn’t just a novel about Evalina; it’s a novel about Zelda and Highland’s other residents and staff as well. Evalina half watches, half participates in their lives, accompanying them as much as traveling on her own journey.

I’ve been interested in Zelda’s life story since I read Tennessee William’s play Clothes for a Summer Hotel—one of his last works and one that features Zelda Fitzgerald. Guests on Earth doesn’t focus on Zelda nearly as much as the jacket blurb suggests it will, but it turns out that’s not a problem. Zelda comes across as a talented woman, as much conceited as self-confident, and given to sudden bursts of unkindness. Evalina is a pale character beside her, but she’s nonetheless a much more interesting character.

Reading Guests on Earth, I had an experience I don’t recall having had before with a novel: there were moments when I forgot I was reading fiction. Yes, I’ve been lost in the worlds created within novels any number of times, and the characters of my favorite novels feel utterly real to me—but Evalina’s story made me forget I was reading a story. I kept slipping into a different sort of consciousness, one that I can’t define well, but that I know I experience when reading memoir or biography, not fiction. ( )
  Sarah-Hope | Sep 6, 2015 |
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The insane are always guests on earth, eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read.

— F. Scott Fitzgerald, in a letter to his daughter, Scottie, c. December 15, 1940
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, How can we know the dancer from the dance?

-William Butler Yeats, "Among School Children"
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For years I have intended to write my own impressions of Mrs. Zelda Fitzgerald, from the time I first encountered her when I was but a child myself at Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1937, and then a decade later during the several months leading up to the mysterious tragedy of 1948.
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Book description
Evalina Toussaint, orphaned child of an exotic dancer in New Orleans, is just thirteen when she is admitted to Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. The year is 1936, and the mental hospital is under the direction of the celebrated psychiatrist Robert S. Carroll whose innovative treatment for nervous disorders and addictions is based upon fresh air, diet, exercise, gardening, art, dance, music, theater, and therapies of the day such as rest cures, freeze wraps, and insulin shock.

Talented Evalina is soon taken under the wing of the doctor's wife, a famous concert pianist, and eventually becomes the accompanist for all musical programs at the hospital, including the many dances and theatricals choreographed by longtime patient Zelda Fitzgerald.

Evalina's role gives her privileged access to the lives and secrets of other patients and staff swept into a cascading series of events leading up to the tragic fire of 1948 that killed nine women in a locked ward on the top floor. She offers a solution for the still-unsolved mystery of that fire, as well as her own ideas about the very thin line between sanity and insanity; her opinion of psychiatric treatment of women and girls who failed to fit into prevailing male ideals; and her insights into the resonance between art and madness.

A writer at the high of her craft, Lee Smith has created, through her masterful melding of fiction and fact, a mesmerizing novel about a world apart — a time and a place where creativity and passion, theory and medicine, fact and fiction, tragedy and transformation, are luminously intertwined.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 161620253X, Hardcover)

Evalina Toussaint, the orphaned child of an exotic dancer in New Orleans, is just thirteen when she is admitted to Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. The year is 1936, and the mental hospital is under the direction of the celebrated psychiatrist Robert S. Carroll. His innovative program of treatment for mental and nervous disorders and addictions is based on exercise, diet, art, and occupational therapies—and experimental shock therapy.
Evalina finds herself in the company of some notable fellow patients, including Zelda Fitzgerald, estranged wife of F. Scott, who takes the young piano prodigy under her wing. Evalina becomes the accompanist for the musical programs at the hospital. This provides privileged insight into the events that transpire over the next twelve years, culminating in a tragic fire—its mystery unsolved to this day—that killed nine women in a locked ward, Zelda among them. At all costs, Evalina listens, observes, remembers—and tells us everything.
Guests on Earth is a mesmerizing novel about a time and a place where creativity and passion, theory and medicine, fact and fiction, are luminously intertwined by a writer at the height of her craft.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:01:34 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

It is 1936 when orphaned thirteen-year-old Evalina Toussaint is admitted to Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, a mental institution known for its innovative treatments for nervous disorders and addictions. Taken under the wing of the hospital's most notable patient, Zelda Fitzgerald, Evalina witnesses the cascading events leading up to the tragic fire of 1948 that killed nine women in a locked ward, Zelda among them.… (more)

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