Melissa and I have what we call the “essentials” shelf. Right now, it’s not an actual shelf, but the books themselves are real. What makes a book an essential is not just the fact that it’s good read—it has to be the sort of read that is rich enough to invite rereading, that promises to keep providing moments of surprise and insight even as it become familiar. We often get our books in paperback or electronic copies, but once we’ve decided a book is an essential, we pick up a hard-cover copy. We feel comforted knowing that we own a copy of the book that is ready to stand up to the years of revisiting we intend to spend on it.
One of the essentials I discovered this year is Lee Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies. This book opens with a one-way correspondence from Ivy Rowe, a young girl growing up in Appalachia, to her unresponsive Dutch pen-pal, Hanneke. From the start Ivy’s voice rings true and spills out across the page in an engaging jumble of observations and reflection:
“My dear Hanneke,
“Your name is not much common here, I think it is so pretty too. I say it now and agin it tastes sweet on my mouth like honey or cane or how I picture the fotched-on candy from Mrs Browns book about France, candy wich mimicks roses. Have you seed any such as this? I have not. I have seed them in her red book that is all.”
In her next letter to Hanneke, Ivy announces “I want to be a famous writer when I grow up, I will write of Love,” and despite her circumstances, we already feel as if this might be possible, given Ivy’s voice and force of personality.
And a bit further along, as Ivy rants at her unresponsive pen-pal, we can’t help but both laugh at and admire her change in tone and her angry re-imagining of both Hanneke and the Dutch countryside where Hanneke lives: “I hate you, you do not write back nor be my pen friend I think you are the Ice Queen instead…. I know you are so rich with all your lace and those fine big cows. I know you have plenty to eat…. I hope that the sea will come in the hole in the dike and will flood you out and you will drown. I will not send this letter as I remane your hateful, Ivy Rowe.”
From the moment Ivy turned on Hanneke, I knew I wanted to spend time with Ivy—a book’s worth of time. I wanted to see what sort of woman this feisty girl would grow up into; I wanted to watch her take on the world. I wanted to be around when she became that famous writer, writing of Love.
Ironically—spoiler alert!—Ivy never leaves the mountain community of her birth, but her life is remarkable nonetheless.
Given the pleasure my time with Ivy brought me, I’d been waiting eagerly for Smith’s latest book, Guests on Earth. In this novel, as in Fair and Tender Ladies, we first meet the narrator, Evalina Toussaint, as a girl. Evalina, the soon-to-be-orphaned daughter of a New Orleans exotic dancer, is an altogether different creature than Ivy: unsure of herself, carried along life’s eddies and unwilling to chart a path for herself. She does gain the opportunity to attend music college—but recognizes that she’s happier as an accompanist, using her playing to highlight the accomplishments of others. While both girls are highly observant, Ivy charges into the world, while Evalina watches it from a remove.
Evalina spends much of her life in and out of Highland Mental Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina—the hospital in which Zelda Fitzgerald spent much of her adult life and where she died in a fire, trapped in a locked ward. So this isn’t just a novel about Evalina; it’s a novel about Zelda and Highland’s other residents and staff as well. Evalina half watches, half participates in their lives, accompanying them as much as traveling on her own journey.
I’ve been interested in Zelda’s life story since I read Tennessee William’s play Clothes for a Summer Hotel—one of his last works and one that features Zelda Fitzgerald. Guests on Earth doesn’t focus on Zelda nearly as much as the jacket blurb suggests it will, but it turns out that’s not a problem. Zelda comes across as a talented woman, as much conceited as self-confident, and given to sudden bursts of unkindness. Evalina is a pale character beside her, but she’s nonetheless a much more interesting character.
Reading Guests on Earth, I had an experience I don’t recall having had before with a novel: there were moments when I forgot I was reading fiction. Yes, I’ve been lost in the worlds created within novels any number of times, and the characters of my favorite novels feel utterly real to me—but Evalina’s story made me forget I was reading a story. I kept slipping into a different sort of consciousness, one that I can’t define well, but that I know I experience when reading memoir or biography, not fiction.
I’m not quite certain yet whether I’ll be buying a hardback copy of Guests on Earth for the essentials shelf, but I do know it is a remarkable book with a subtle magic that has nothing to do with the occasional, fiery presence of Zelda Fitzgerald. Read it. Read Guests on Earth. Read Fair and Tender Ladies. Spend some time with Ivy and with Evalina.