Like love, grief is ultimately something that we must all go through alone. There can be people who help, but our emotional journeys are ours alone.
And that is the heart of "The Optimist's Daughter," a dark, quiet little novel set in the mid-20th century South. Eudora Welty explores a difficult, emotionally wringing topic -- one woman losing the last loved one she had, and the struggle to come to terms with the many people she's lost.
Elderly but healthy Judge McKelva goes in for an eye operation, but seems strangely lethargic afterwards. His daughter Laurel -- who has been away for several years -- is concerned as her father continues to decline, especially since his flaky second wife Fay is treating him badly, and even has to be physically restrained by a nurse. Then the judge dies.
And Laurel finds herself in her old family home, trying to deal with Fay, her weird family, and the many well-meaning-but-dense friends that McKelva had over the years. But when the house is empty and she is alone, Laurel looks back on her life -- her all-too-brief marriage to a loving man, her mother's horrible death, and her father's remarriage -- and learns how to feel again.
Few books that I've read really handle the subject of grief -- usually people hug, cry, and get over it except for a few pages every now and then, when there is a mention of the Dearly Departed.
But not many authors can really get to the wrenching, lonely core of grief and loss, and how it can set us free, or lock our emotions and throw away the key. And that is basically what "The Optimist's Daughter" is all about -- McKelva's illness and death are a prelude to Laurel's soul-searching, and the exploration of how she handles her grief.
Welty wraps the slow, gradual storyline (which takes only a few days) in warm, colourful prose ("Sienna-bright leaves and thorns like spurts of matchflame had pierced through..."). She does have a tendency to let the dialogue from various people ramble, but often that rambling makes some very sharp points about loss, such as how the well-meaning often tell white lies about the dead, or ignore their dying wishes.
Laurel is kind of a nonentity for the first half of the book -- she's all locked up in herself, and we don't know much about her. But then Welty paints the devastating pain and guilt that she's been feeling, and shows how you have to let go of the past in order to live the future. Quite a contrast to the childish, putrescent Fay, whose rallying cry is always "What about ME?" and who accuses her dying husband of ruining her birthday.
"The Optimist's Daughter" is only optimistic as it ends -- up until then, it's a beautifully painful look at love, loss, and grief. A magnificent story, if a rather uncomfortable one.