Evalina Toussaint, 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 whose innovative treatment for nervous disorders and addictions is based upon fresh air, diet, exercise, gardening, art, dance, music, theater, and therapies of the day such as rest cures, freeze wraps, and insulin shock.
Talented Evalina is soon taken under the wing of the doctor’s wife, a famous concert pianist, and eventually becomes the accompanist for all musical programs at the hospital, including the many dances and theatricals choreographed by longtime patient Zelda Fitzgerald.
Evalina’s role gives her privileged access to the lives and secrets of other patients and staff swept into a cascading series of events leading up to the tragic fire of 1948 that killed nine women in a locked ward on the top floor. She offers a solution for the still-unsolved mystery of that fire, as well as her own ideas about the very thin line between sanity and insanity; her opinion of psychiatric treatment of women and girls who failed to fit into prevailing male ideals; and her insights into the resonance between art and madness.
I was drawn into the story from the first page. Evelina is an orphaned girl looking for love, looking for a family, and feeling abandoned over and over again. She ends up living in an asylum due to periods of depression and slowly comes to find many of the "guests" there to be the family that she needs. She is more than willing to put up with the eccentricities of the "mad" to feel companionship and love.
She is taken under several wings and given wonderful chances in life, even - for a short time - finding love and marriage. But then a secret is found out that crushes her back into her depressive state and sends her back to the asylum.
This novel contains characters that reach out and grab you and it was a pleasure to read, even though I mainly wanted to reach into the pages and do nothing more than hug Evalina.
A writer at the high of her craft, Lee Smith has created, through her masterful melding of fiction and fact, a mesmerizing novel about a world apart — a time and a place where creativity and passion, theory and medicine, fact and fiction, tragedy and transformation, are luminously intertwined.
Lee Smith is an amazing writer with a very personal connection to this story. Here’s a video in which she explains that connection: http://vimeo.com/65824667.