The Optimist's Daughter - Eudora Welty, Erroll McDonald
The year before Eudora Welty began writing this book, her mother and last remaining brother died (her other brother had died six years previously). Before that, Welty had spent years caring for her mother in declining health, and their relationship had always been difficult and guilt-laden. The Optimist's Daughter is an anguished novel. But although it's personal, it's not literally autobiographical. The events of the life of its protagonist, Laurel McKelva Hand, are not those of the author's life. Welty wrote only her emotions into the story, which spans the illness, death, and funeral of Laurel's father Judge McKelva.

The author chose to set off her reflections on family love, on the relation between Laurel's father and her late mother Becky, on memory, and on lasting value, by creating a character that was the complete antithesis of everything she valued: Fay Chisom, whom the Judge had married just two years before his death. Brash, utterly self-centered, caring only about the present moment, apparently incapable of love, insensitive to the worth of carefully-made objects, her only idea of beauty what's brightest and showiest, Fay despoils Laurel's family house, mistreats the Judge, and insults the memory of everything Laurel has loved. She symbolizes, too, the erasure of connection to the past in Mississippi society, like the new interstate that now roars past the cemetery. Welty commented that she "hated" Fay, which is unusual in her humane writings, saying, "She's the one who doesn't understand what experience means and doesn't learn anything. And to me, that is horrifying and even evil, almost sinful. And I may have gone overboard in that case. I have been accused of it." It is difficult for a character created as a foil to live independently, though the introduction of Fay's family does go some way toward making her more rounded.

In the end, Laurel will realize that she's better off than Fay because she can remember and be hurt; memory is its own thing that doesn't depend on physical connection to the past, and if it's painful that's proof that it's still alive. The book contains loving recollections of Laurel's parents while her mother was alive (but also her mother's painful final years when the Judge failed her by being an "optimist" who could not acknowledge the seriousness of her unrelievable distress), and of Laurel's brief marriage before her husband was killed in WWII. These, like all passages devoted to Laurel's interior thoughts, are written in a highly literary prose a million miles from the vernacular monologue of The Ponder Heart. It's all very finely calculated writing, though a bit chilly, perhaps. This novel is best suited to someone willing to turn the pages slowly, to digest it like a subtle short story. I can imagine myself returning to it when I'm old, and perhaps then feeling the full impact of a work that currently leaves me rather cold.