Monday, December 2, 2013

Julie's Review: Guests on Earth

Summary: 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. ~powells.com

Review: Guests on Earth is an intriguing look at mental illness and the treatment of them in the early 20th Century. Ms. Smith picks one of the most famous mental hospitals to set her novel in, Highland Hospital in Asheville, NC. This hospital is famous because of its innovative way of treating mental illnesses and also because of a famous patient, Zelda Fitzgerald.

Except in Guests on Earth, Zelda is a secondary character to the main one, Evalina Toussaint. I'm not sure how Ms. Fitzgerald would take to being secondary. ;) While Evalina was the main character and the story is told through her eyes, it is all the characters/patients in the hospital that held my interest. I found it extremely interesting that the majority of the patients were female. Was this due to the time period in which the story is told? Is it because at that time, they didn't know how to deal with female shows of emotions? Was it just more common for women to be put in a hospital to get better? I think it's a mixture of most.

What I never understood was why Evalina was sent there in the first place. Was it because her mother killed herself? Was it because of her parentage? Why not just send her to an orphanage? Why Highland? This is the one question that nagged me throughout the book and even as I closed it.

Evalina herself is an interesting character. Extremely bright but emotionally stunted and always trying to please those around her. She is a gifted pianist but doesn't trust herself. She definitely makes some bad decisions in her life but I don't think they are because she's mentally ill/unstable, they are because she's young and impressionable.

Those readers going in and expecting a novel about Zelda's stay at Highland will be disappointed. While Zelda makes several appearances and makes a lasting impression on Evalina, she is not the focus. 

While I enjoyed the novel, it wasn't what I expected. This isn't bad a thing. I did enjoy the look into a mental hospital during the early days of modern psychology. While there was experimentation done during this time period, I feel that these people were pioneers in getting to today when we have a better understanding of mental illnesses. Not only were the doctors pioneers but so were the patients they tried these therapies on.

Final Take: 4/5




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1 comments :

Beth Hoffman December 2, 2013 at 1:38 PM  

Long ago I read "Family Linen" by Lee Smith and liked it a lot, and I've been curious about this book. Glad to know you enjoyed it.

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