I went on a reading spree a few weeks ago, and read 5 books in 5 days. I’m now posting short reviews of all 5 this week. Up next? The Optimist’s Daughter, by Eudora Welty.
I grabbed this book from the library because it fit my key demand-side reader requirement: That it be short. But Welty packs quite a bit into this slim tale.
To be sure, the theme of a child coming to terms with a parent’s death is well-plowed ground. In The Optimist’s Daughter, the grieving child is Laurel, a widowed artist. Her father, Judge McKelva, was a prominent figure in his small Mississippi town. But Welty, a great chronicler of the South’s people and places, keeps things moving by introducing an almost farcical character: Wanda Fay, Laurel’s step-mother, who is actually younger than Laurel herself. Why this steady, dignified judge elected to marry a young and rather foolish woman late in life is one of the mysteries lurking in this rich tale.
There aren’t necessarily great answers, but as Laurel journeys to her home town and goes through her father’s things, she finds herself finally confronting the memory of her own soldier husband’s death, something she has mostly managed to bury up until then. He died so young that their love was “sealed away into its perfection and had remained there.” She has to ask what their lives would have looked like, and how their love might have changed, if they’d had to watch each other die, slowly, in the way her father had lost his first wife.
Welty’s prose starts on the light side. But as the plot circles in on memories, again and again, she draws you in deeper, becoming terser, more vivid. In the climactic scene, Laurel has a vision of her late husband: “Now, by her own hands, the past had been raised up, and he looked at her, Phil himself — here waiting, all the time, Lazarus. He looked at her out of eyes wild with the craving for his unlived life, with mouth open like a funnel’s.” Their love might have changed as they’d lived through illness and senility, but still, she pictures Phil screaming — as “his voice rose with the wind in the night and went around the house and around the house” — I wanted it!
Welty wrote The Optimist’s Daughter in her 60s. It reflects the mastery that decades of honing one’s craft can produce, packed into a small number of words. Highly recommended — if not exactly airplane fare. It’s more for reading during a block of time you’ll have by yourself. Bonus points if that’s on a back porch on a Mississippi night.