There is a lot of pain between the covers of Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter, and so much of it runs beneath the surface. Laurel, or Polly to those who’ve loved her the longest, walks around the flowers, rivers, and mountains of her childhood, listening to the past through her bedroom wall, and feels the hands of her dead mother, and her dead husband, running through her hair and over her back, as she tries to face down a future without them.

I picked up this book, without knowing anything about it whatsoever, because last summer this advice column made my heart quicken. Sugar gives invariably difficult advice, but only because life is difficult, and to say that there is an easier way out of the mess of being human is sophist at best and flat out an insidious and life-negating lie at worst.

I was anticipating some heart-wrenchingly beautiful prose, bone clean and real. I was not disappointed.

This was the first piece of American fiction that’s pointedly Southern that I read this year. It’s hard to read work from the South because it seems like I can’t help but sort of tie the stories up with a bunch of non-related ideas I have, the free-floating concept, of the Southern US. Ideas about magnolias, and okra, and flies and, if we’re being honest, fried chicken and heat. And politics and oysters. These were, of course, not the underpinnings of this novel of love and loss.

The Optimist’s Daughter is a bit of a difficult book to pin down, without giving everything away. It’s organized into four books and each of them marks the days and interior life of Laurel in a very specific way that I think is sort of akin to the way that grief is made up of so many different components. The structure of the story compartmentalizes the events of the plot nicely, in that each book can detail a precise moment of being for Laurel. As each of the books comes to its end, the reader gets a little closer, Welty’s free indirect style becoming a little less free. Laurel’s father’s second wife Fay, similar to her only in age,  acts as a foil for the ways in which grief can be a selfish thing, neither woman knows what to make of the situation and they both do the best they can the only way they know how.

I was torn apart by Fay. She’s Texan, where as the other characters are Mississippian, and Fay is very much an outsider. Her brashness and vanity make for a strange bedfellow to Laurel’s methodical and thoughtful father. Laurel’s dad reads the classics and answers letters, having been both a Judge and the Mayor of Mount Salus. Fay obsesses over shoes, spills nail polish on uncluttered desks, opens walnuts with a hammer. Fay cries out loud, screams her discontents, and often says things like “why is this happening to me?”. Laurel is quiet, almost emptied out. The events of this book are so far removed from her daily life of textile design in Chicago that they almost slip away from her like a nightmares–she is not her self in her home town. Fay is always and only herself, and always on the look out with the paranoia of a megalomaniac; she is a permanent second wife that causes the other townsfolk to raise their eyebrows.

The trickiest and best thing that Welty does with the negotiations of these two women is to have Laurel set Fay up as a child, as a silly woman, to have her sweat with the attempt to withhold  the judgement she has already made, and by the time we get really close to Laurel we can see her own silliness, her own childishness, in her inability to let go of the world for an hour or twelve and really get into the mess of grief. When she does break down, it happens like life itself: beautiful and all at once.

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