Smith (Mrs. Darcy and the Blue Eyed Stranger, 2010, etc.) jumps on the bandwagon of recent interest in Zelda Fitzgerald, bringing to fictional life Asheville’s Highland Hospital, where Zelda and eight other patients died in a fire in 1948.
Right off the bat, narrator Evalina likens herself to Nick Carroway, asking, “Is any story not the narrator’s story?” Perhaps, but while The Great Gatsby dominates Nick’s story, Zelda makes only guest cameos in Evalina’s narration. Evalina spends her early childhood in New Orleans until her courtesan mother’s death. In 1936, after attempting to move her in with his respectable family, her mother’s wealthy lover sends adolescent Evalina to Highland Hospital as a combination patient, guest, and ward of Dr. and Mrs. Carroll. The Carrolls are historical figures, Dr. Carroll famed for treating physiological ailments with diet and exercise rather than introspection or analysis, Mrs. Carroll for her skills as a pianist—her most famous student, Nina Simone, has a walk-on here. Evalina soon meets the extremely mercurial Zelda, who treats her as a stand-in for Scotty, and later witnesses the Fitzgeralds lunching unhappily together at Asheville’s Grove Park Inn. Evalina also conveniently listens to other characters describe the Fitzgeralds in long-winded detail that adds nothing new. Evalina shows musical talent, and the Carrolls eventually send her to Philadelphia to study at Peabody. She becomes the accompanist/lover of a talented but philandering Italian tenor. After losing him and the baby he didn’t want, she returns to Asheville and undergoes shock treatment, newly instituted at the hospital. Ensconced in the halfway house attached to the hospital, Evalina is carrying on two contradictory romances by the time Zelda returns in the late 1940s, a shell of the glamorous woman she seemed a decade earlier. Evalina hints at various possibilities but leaves what caused the fatal fire a mystery.
Smith brings to life the world of Highland Hospital, where the line between staff and “guests” often blurs, but Evalina is a mishmash of clichés, while Zelda remains a rehash.