This story of a young woman's confrontation with death and her past is a poetic study of human relations.
Not much actually happens in the rest of the book--Fay's low-rent relatives arrive for the funeral, a bird flies down the chimney and is trapped in the hall--and yet Welty manages to compress the richness of an entire life within its pages. This is a world, after all, in which a set of complex relationships can be conveyed by the phrase "I know his whole family" or by the criticism "When he brought her here to your house, she had very little idea of how to separate an egg." Does such a place exist anymore? It is vanishing even from this novel, and the personification of its vanishing is none other than Fay--petulant, graceless, childish, with neither the passion nor the imagination to love. Welty expends a lot of vindictive energy on Fay and her kin, who must be the most small-minded, mean-mouthed clan since the Snopeses hit Frenchman's Bend. There's more than just class snobbery at work here (though that surely comes into it too). As Welty sees it, they are a special historical tribe who exult in grieving because they have come to be good at it, and who seethe with resentment from the day they are born. They have come "out of all times of trouble, past or future--the great, interrelated family of those who never know the meaning of what has happened to them."
Fay belongs to the future, as she makes clear; it's Laurel who belongs to the past--Welty's own chosen territory. In her fine memoir, One Writer's Beginnings, Welty described the way art could shine a light back "as when your train makes a curve, showing that there has been a mountain of meaning rising behind you on the way you've come." Here, in one of her most autobiographical works, the past joins seamlessly with the present in a masterful evocation of grief, memory, loss, and love. Beautifully written, moving but never mawkish, The Optimist's Daughter is Eudora Welty's greatest achievement--which is high praise indeed. --Mary Park
The reasons for Welty's popularity with THE NEW YORKER editorial board are much in evidence: the story is told subtly and in small pieces, and accrues a remarkable level of hospital and genteel smalltown detail as it proceeds. Its measured rhythms are the best thing this novel has going for it. Unfortunately, it seems to proceed too much along the lines of a contest between discreet Southern gentility and refinement (embodied in the quiet and grieiving Laurel) and no-'count Southern lower-class vulgarity (championed by Fay and her obnoxious Texas relatives). Although Laurel comes to realize why her father's late-life optimism explains why he married Fay, Welty doesn't really allow Fay any sort of appeal to the reader at all, and so you finish the novel thinking how much *nicer* everything would have been had the judge never married her. (At least Tennessee Williams allowed Stanley Kowalski animal magnetism.) The novel seems too much on the side of delicacy , especially given that Welty's own fine feelings are so manifest in her method of telling of the story--though paradoxically some overobvious symbols (a carved boat, a breadboard, the judge's degenerating eye) weigh things down a bit much. The work is most interesting at the end, when Laurel must confront some truths about her real mother's final illness which complicate the overly schematic family alignments in some welcome ways.
Laurel's character was developed largely from the tangible details about the way she conducted herself with her father, mother, Fay, and the people from her town, as well as descriptions of her memories. She was a complete character through her interactions with the other characters and her memories which were brought on through her interaction with her surroundings. And though Fay seemed a little bit one-dimensional, she was by no means evil--there are stupid people in the world :)
Contrary to some of the other reviewers I felt like the simplicity and grace of Welty's prose deserved the Pulitzer Prize.