Re-reading her 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Optimist’s Daughter” left me again appreciating her brilliance. This book manages to pack so much subtlety and nuance into so few pages it’s astonishing. Her ear for dialect and her sense of place shine here, as they do in all of her works.
“The Optimist’s Daughter” tells the story of Laurel McKelva Hand, who was raised in a small Mississippi town but now resides in Chicago, where she works as a fabric designer. Her father, a renowned and respected judge – and an optimist – goes to New Orleans for eye surgery, and Laurel comes when he beckons to see about him. Her father’s new bride, Fay, younger than Laurel herself, is there, too. (Laurel’s mother died a decade ago.)
From the outset, Fay’s nasty and small behavior puts Laurel on edge, though she holds her tongue for the sake of her father. Things take a turn a few weeks after the surgery and the judge dies unexpectedly, leaving Laurel and Fay to handle the funeral together back home in Mississippi. Relations between the two don’t warm once they’re back there, as Laurel is embraced and comforted by family friends and Fay feels like she’s an outsider. Someone invites Fay’s family from Texas to the funeral so she’s not so alone, but their appallingly tacky behavior only serves to isolate her further.
Laurel, left alone in her childhood home after Fay leaves to be with her family for a few days, must finally confront the death of both of her parents, as well as her husband, who died during wartime early in their marriage. She searches for meaning in these three losses, trying to figure out her own place in the world now. A battle with a bird that gets into the house through the chimney seems to represent Laurel’s own battle with her losses.
A book about love, loss, memory, and grief, “The Optimist’s Daughter” feels as modern today as when it was published. It’s both touching and, at times, funny. Though small-town life may be changing as the world grows ever more interconnected, the human truths in a work like this endure.
— LouAnn Lofton, email@example.com