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.
Lee Smith is the author of sixteen previous books of fiction, including the bestselling novels Fair and Tender Ladies and The Last Girls, winner of the Southern Book Critics Circle Award. Also the recipient of the 1999 Academy Award in Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina.
“In Guests on Earth Lee Smith gives evidence again of the grace and insight that distinguish her work. Her characters are realized with singular intensity, the most vivid interior life, and flawless dialogue. Reading Lee Smith ranks among the great pleasures of American fiction.”
“The American South has produced some of the greatest writers in history. Seated at the head of that table is Lee Smith, who writes with ferocity and detail, tenderness and specificity, about life in the mountains of southwest Virginia and eastern Tennessee. In Guests on Earth, something altogether new and different, Smith . . . solves the mystery of the death of Zelda Fitzgerald through the prism of a beguiling narrator, Evalina, who bore witness to the tragedy and lived to tell her version of the events. This is Lee Smith at her powerful best.”