Another look at Zelda: Algonquin to release new Lee Smith novel
"Guests on Earth”
By Lee Smith (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $25.95. on sale Oct. 15)
Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, the wife of writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, is often cited as a symbol of the Lost Generation, the Jazz Age and the excesses of the liberating 1920s. In Lee Smith’s new novel “Guests on Earth,” Zelda Fitzgerald is not a crazy flapper, but an artist with great empathy for those society considers outsiders.
We see her through the eyes of Evalina Toussaint, the narrator of “Guests on Earth.” Evalina proclaims from the opening page that this story is not hers but Zelda Fitzgerald’s. She then makes a comparison to Nick Carraway, the narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” which was “not his story, either.”
Yet “Guests on Earth” is as much narrator Evalina’s story as it is her recollections of Zelda. Smith has created a compelling, disturbing but also uplifting narrative inspired by the 1948 fire that swept through Highland Hospital in Asheville, killing nine women, among them Zelda Fitzgerald. “I bring a certain insight and new information to this horrific event that changed all our lives forever, those of us living there upon that mountain at that time,” the narrator tells us.
After Evalina’s baby brother dies and her mother, a dancer, commits suicide, Arthur Graves (with whom Evalina’s mother had a relationship) sends Evalina to Highland, because she refuses to eat. During the time period of this book (late 1930s and 1940s), Robert Carroll and his wife Grace Potter Carroll, a concert pianist, ran Highland. Robert Carroll’s treatment for the mentally ill – employing exercise, diet, activity and the arts -- was progressive for its time.
Like Zelda Fitzgerald, the Carrolls are historical figures Smith has weaved into her narrative (Nina Simone makes a brief appearance as a piano student of Mrs. Carroll), the result of Smith’s excellent research. Though progressive for its time, Highland still used treatment methods such as insulin-shock therapy – which Evalina undergoes during one of her stays at the hospital.
“Guests on Earth” is about mental illness, but it’s equally about the power of art to change lives and bring people together, and Lee Smith’s Zelda is central to this theme. During Evalina’s first stay at Highland as a young girl, Zelda teaches her some painting techniques, and they build a dollhouse together. Zelda also leads her fellow patients in ballet. “Oh I was the prima ballerina of Montgomery,” Zelda says, proclaiming that she “could have gone anywhere, and done anything” before F. Scott the great writer fell in love with her.
During Evalina’s second stay at Highland, Zelda also returns and, employing Evalina’s talents as a pianist, choreographs and leads a “ballet of infinity,” an interpretive dance about the concept of time. The ballet gives the residents of Highland a sense of community. “They had ceased to be patients; they could have been any young women, anywhere,” Evalina tells us. When Dr. Carroll seeks to use insulin-shock therapy on Evalina, she tries to run away to attend the Peabody Institute to study music. Zelda becomes her protector, facing down the doctor and telling him to leave her be.
Evalina also takes piano lessons from Grace Carroll, and is able to attend The Peabody Institute. Smith develops the relationship between these two in a highly creative chapter titled “Intermezzo.” The chapter is a series of letters Evalina writes to Mrs. Carroll during her time at Peabody, from her freshman year to the time she graduates, reflecting her growth as a musician. Later in the novel, Evalina says Mrs. Carroll “had broadened my world, as well as determined the course of my life.”
Smith creates some fine secondary characters – Pan, who lives at Highland and keeps its gardens, and is “tuned” in to plants and animals; Jinx, an incorrigible patient who hates rules, but can dance, and becomes a soulmate to Zelda; and Dr. Schwartz, who understands the limits of psychiatry to delve into the human soul (she calls it “an absurd enterprise”).
Zelda Fitzgerald in life was multi-talented. She was a dancer, painter and writer. Lee Smith’s Zelda uses her talents to give fellow Highland residents something therapy cannot offer -- connections, community, even love.