Laurel McKelva Hand accompanies her father, Judge McKelva, to New Orleans for an emergency eye procedure with his young new wife. The operation is not as benign as the "optimist" Judge would have it, and soon afterward, he succumbs to a combination of surgical trauma and sheer age, leaving Laurel and Fay in uncomfortable rivalry over the possession of his property and legacy.
The Optimist's Daughter is a very concise book (I read it in a single sitting), but it manages to reinvent itself at least twice. At first, it seems almost as if Welty is setting up a broad, Confederacy of Dunces-type comedy. The character of Fay is comically narcissistic and cruel, incapable of sympathizing with anyone, even her own husband through his illness and operation. She may even be implicated in his death, which occurs shortly after Laurel discovers Fay trying to "shock him into life" through force, while shouting: "This is my birthday!"
After the Judge's death, the scene shifts to the McKelvas' family home in Mount Salus, Mississippi, where a nearly innumerable parade of mourners comes to call on Laurel. Fay crabbily refuses anyone's kindness--even her own interloping family, arrived from Texas--and makes unsubtle pronouncements about "whose house this is" now. And yet it seems like a comedy where the punchline is perpetually deferred, and the cast of characters comes on too thick and too fast to cohere into a recognizable backstory for the Judge, while Laurel remains curiously aloof from the action and from the narrative. The heartwarming resolution we expect between Laurel and Fay never arrives, because Welty denies us even the prerequisite blow-up.
And then, strangely, the mourners go away--Fay skips off to Texas at a whim--and The Optimist's Daughter becomes a different book entirely. Wandering around the empty home which will shortly become Fay's, Laurel is drawn into a series of memories that fill in the story of her mother, from her childhood to her marriage to the Judge and final illness and death. This third of the novel is remarkably through and detailed for being so compact; in fact, I feel as if I didn't read this section closely enough, fooled by the first two parts of the novel into reading quickly and breezily. In fact, what this section brought to mind for me was Marilynne Robinson, who works through memory in a similar way:
The first time Laurel could remember arriving in West Virginia instead of just fiunding herself there, her mother and she had got down from the train in early morning and stood, after it had gone, by themselves on a steep rock, all of the world that they could see in the mist being their rock and its own iron bell on a apost with its rope hanging down. Her mother gave the rope a pull and at its sound, almost at the moment of it, large and close to them appeared a gray boat with two of the boys at the oars. At their very feet had been the river. The boat came breasting out of the mist, and in they stepped. All new things in life were meant to come like that.Such a wonderful little passage, but--and I suppose it's hard to tell from this review--so without context, springing up as if from nowhere, as if from a different story all together. That's the mode of the last part of the book, which provides a remarkably detailed narrative for being so compact, and yet always seems to be one detail shy of really providing an intimate look at Laurel's interior. At the end, Fay returns for the blow-up we were expecting, but by that time, the stakes have changed, and Fay--bitter and petty to the end--is the only one who seems not to recognize that stories don't always end the way that they begin.