“Reading Lee Smith ranks among the great pleasures of American fiction . . . Gives evidence again of the grace and insight that distinguish her work.” —Robert Stone, author of Death of the Black-Haired Girl
It’s 1936 when orphaned thirteen-year-old Evalina Toussaint is admitted to Highland Hospital, a mental institution in Asheville, North Carolina, 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 cascading events that lead up to the tragic fire of 1948 that killed nine women in a locked ward, Zelda among them. Author Lee Smith has created, through a seamless blending of fiction and fact, a mesmerizing novel about a world apart--in which art and madness are luminously intertwined.
Zelda Fitzgerald is fictionalized and given a supporting role in Smith's (On Agate Hill) chronicle of a girl whose life is changed by a North Carolina mental institution. In 1936, after her mother's suicide in New Orleans, 13-year-old Evalina Toussaint is sent to live at Highland Hospital. There, she's mothered by Grace Potter Carroll, the director's wife, who gives Evalina music lessons and a shot at a normal life. Evalina also meets F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife, Zelda, who swings from sweetness to cruelty, and often mistakes Evalina for her daughter Patricia. Mrs. Carroll and Evalina grow apart as the latter leaves Highland to attend school and eventually become engaged. When tragedy strikes and Evalina finds herself once again at the hospital, the Carrolls are no longer in charge, though Zelda remains among the changing crop of patients. At this point, the book becomes truly engaging, as Smith introduces characters like the charming Dixie Calhoun. Evalina also finds herself smitten with groundskeeper Pan Otto, who was found locked in a cage as a child, and doctor Freddy Sledge. Many tragedies pepper the narrative, including the fire that bookends the story, all of which are handled in a touching manner. Smith's novel takes a while to blossom, but really takes off once it does.
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I was immersed
I was so immersed in this book. I didn't want to put it down. The characters were so lively, I felt like I knew them. This book was fantastic, I can't wait to read other books by this author. I would highly recommend this book to all!