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Guests on Earth: A Novel Hardcover – October 15, 2013

4.1 out of 5 stars 370 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Abandoned as a child upon her mother’s death in New Orleans in the 1930s, Evalina is sent to Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, by her mother’s wealthy lover—a convenient way of dealing with an inconvenient problem. Evalina may be a lot of things—a budding musician, a romantic dreamer—but mentally ill she is not. Yet over time, the mental hospital becomes her home and its staff and fellow patients her family. Celebrated for its unorthodox treatment methods, Highland attracts the penniless and the notorious, and Evalina is influenced by a nearly feral young man and the hospital’s most famous patient, Zelda Fitzgerald. Equally creative, emotive, independent, and adventurous as Zelda, wife of the renowned author F. Scott, Evalina also contradicts society’s standard for female behavior, guaranteeing that no matter how often she escapes or improves, she will always return to Highland. Riding the recurring wave of Zelda-mania, perennially best-selling Smith (Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger, 2010) presents an impeccably researched historical novel that reveals the early twentieth century’s antediluvian attitudes toward mental health and women’s independence. --Carol Haggas

Review

“[An] elegant historical novel . . . Lee Smith is an assured and accomplished writer, and her use of Zelda as a subject in Guests on Earth is brilliant . . . This is a carefully researched, utterly charming novel. By the time you finish it, you fall in love with these fascinating lives, too.” ―The Washington Post

Guests on Earth is a mesmerizing novel about a time and place where creativity and passion, theory and medicine, fact and fiction, are luminously intertwined.” ―BookPage

“Indeed, most of the high spirited, rebellious, outspoken women who populate Guests on Earth would not now be considered insane at all. Smith’s imaginative, layered story illuminates the complexity of their collective plight―to be put in towers until they had no choice but to behave―and rescues them one by one.” ―The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“[An] engaging and engrossing novel . . . Smith’s well-developed characters, rich historical detail and easy prose create a novel that some may call her best yet, and which it just may be.” ―Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Those who enjoyed Smith’s previous work (e.g., Fair and Tender Ladies; The Last Girls) will certainly appreciate this absorbing book, as will those interested in the history of treating mental illness in the United States and fans of Southern or Appalachian fiction.” ―Library Journal

“With Guests on Earth, Lee Smith shines new light on a shadowy, complex subject . . . She offers a broader historical perspective--and with it, a captivating, inimitable voice.” ―The Raleigh News and Observer

“Treading the fine line between sanity and insanity, this historical novel imagines the 12 years proceeding the 1948 fire that engulfed a North Carolina mental hospital and killed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s estranged wife, Zelda.” ―Ms. Magazine

“Engaging . . . Touching.” ―Publishers Weekly

“This is Lee Smith at her powerful best, writing the South she knows through the eyes of a woman who lived it.” ―Adriana Trigiani, author of Big Stone Gap and The Shoemaker's Wife

“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.” ―Robert Stone, author of Death of the Black-Haired Girl and Dog Soldiers

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: A Shannon Ravenel Book; First Edition edition (October 15, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 161620253X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1616202538
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.1 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (370 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #488,170 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Denise Crawford TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 5, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Evalina Toussaint is thirteen when she is admitted to this hospital, known for its cutting edge treatment of the more wealthy mentally ill, after her mother -- the mistress of a rich lover -- dies in New Orleans.

Evalina experiences her coming of age in this lovely place under the tutelage of the well-known Dr. and Mrs. Carroll where she also meets the infamous and mercurial Zelda Fitzgerald who undergoes multiple treatments in the ensuing years. Evalina becomes a piano protege of Mrs. Carroll and it is her music that gives her strength, comforts and sustains her during many difficult times. Highland Hospital becomes her true home and its staff and patients her family as the years go by.

The novel is about one young woman's search for her own sanity, identity and independence as much as it is about life and mental illness during this time in history. Well researched historical details blend fact with fiction creating a story and memorable characters that I can't stop thinking about.

The focus of this well-written story is not on either Zelda Fitzgerald or the fire of 1948 that kills nine of the patients at Highland Hospital, but about the nature and cycle of mental health and the continuum of wellness. Some aspects of the treatment of those judged mentally ill may seem both bizarre and/or inhumane, and the accepted practices then no longer used (lobotomy, insulin shock, etc.) as more becomes known about what works or not. But, truly, as one character so aptly states about clinical depression, "Nobody understands it..."

I really liked this book and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in what life at an upscale mental institution in the 1930s might have been like.
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Format: Hardcover
Lee Smith is one of a handful of writers whom I will always read. Her "House Tour," about the accidental surprise visit of a group of Red Hat ladies to a home on a Christmas Tour of Homes in a North Carolina town, remains one of my favorite short stories ever. Ms. Smith is one of the funniest writers I can think of. Surely you have to love anyone who (according to an essay by her husband Hal Crowther) told a non-Southerner who, with all good intentions, opined that surely Ms. Smith must see lots of rattlesnakes in the South responded without catching a breath that she sees them only in church. Now she has written a most ambitious novel GUESTS ON EARTH-- the title is taken from a letter F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his daughter Scottie in 1940-- The narrator is one Evalina Toussaint who says in the opening sentence: "For years I have intended to write my own impression 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." Even though Evalina does cover the time Mrs. Fitzgerald spent at the mental institution when she herself was a patient there, the novel ultimately is much more about the narrator herself as she acknowledges when she, in referring to Nick Carraway as the narrator of THE GREAT GATSBY, says "Is any story not always the narrator's story, in the end?"

While Ms. Smith may be the high priestess of comedy at times, not so here. She achieves high seriousness in her latest novel as her many characters including both the narrator and Mrs.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
As an interesting "period piece" kind of novel, with well-written descriptions of the treatment of mental illness in the 20's through late 40's, this book is just fine. The descriptive writing is done with care and it is a pleasant read. What never got off the ground for me was any sort of connection with the first person narrator. She was so unemotional and detached from everything in her life, even when the events she was narrating involved passion or trauma, that it was hard to "feel" her rather than just "watch" her. I also started to lose patience with the narrator's determination to reject happiness and security, while at the same time lamenting the "happy home life I never had." (The book opens with her fond memories of her happy, albeit unconventional, life with her mother in New Orleans in their apartment on the rue Dauphine. Even accepting the profound loss that comes from being orphaned at a rather young age, I'm not sure I was able to sign on to the idea of the little waif who had never known love or security.)

This is the only book I've read by this author, so I don't know if this is just her style or she was trying to make a point by writing this way. It's possible that she purposefully made her narrator remote to show the emotional isolation of mental illness. (And despite repeated recoveries and high functionality, the narrator is definitely not working from the standard playbook, as evidenced by the final scene of her waiting in her basement apartment for the lover she is convinced will find his way to her.) At any rate, if that was the author's intent it was an interesting exercise, but I like to feel something for the main character besides puzzlement. In sum, it's fine, but I needed more of a connection in order to love this book.
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