(In a slight revamp of our former format, switched to a more direct conversational style while discussing the latest book on our list, Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter. Here are our thoughts halfway in, having read parts 1 and 2.
Tom: Can I start by saying, optimist, optometrist – coincidence?
Monica: Hahahahaha. Maybe that was like subliminal messaging within Miss Eudora Welty’s mind. I feel like we haven’t really gotten to the optimist part.
Tom: It feels suspicious that the whole story kicks off with an optimist seeing an optometrist. I don’t really see the relevance though.
Monica: And yet Judge McKelva’s optimism is not rewarded.
Tom: Yes, but his optimism is pretty fragile. He only has it for about five seconds.
Monica: In what way? About his chances for survival?
Tom: Well, he’s optimistic before he sees Doctor Courtland. And then when he has to have the operation and stay in hospital he seems to lose energy. He just becomes a shadow, doesn’t he?
Monica: He does, which really confuses me. In fact, the whole first section was really weird. Because once the surgery is over, and the doctor tells him to lie very still, it’s like he just becomes more and more nothing.
Monica: Is it because he has time to reflect on his life?
Tom: Or because inaction is what kills us? Once he is condemned to the bed, without occupation, told not to move till he’s better, he just fades into nonexistence. His vitality is lost.
Monica: I know, but I don’t really understand why, because it was such a temporary situation, and the doctor was optimistic. And yet his daughter Laurel has this sense of foreboding.
Tom: See, I think it’s just because even if he knew he was getting better, it’s because in that recovery period he sort of felt helpless and small, and degraded. And he lost the will to live. Also, it wasn’t a very short period in the end was it?
Monica: True, it does seem like the death of his first wife was like a specter looming over it all.
Tom: It feels like time has been dragging on, the way it’s written. Like we’re meant to feel with Laurel that this has been going on a while. And now Laurel is left with two specters haunting her.
Monica: Well, three really. Fay (Judge McKelva’s second wife) is kind of like a nasty specter herself.
Tom: Oh gawd, that woman is the worst.
Monica: Yes, yes she is.
Tom: I keep trying to find something sympathetic, but so far no glimmer.
Monica: Why is she so unsympathetic? Part of me also feels like she helped to kill off Laurel’s dad. Because we never actually see what she does at his bedside, but it just seems like she harps on at him a lot.
Tom: ‘Harpy’ defines her existence. That’s the perfect word to hit on. She just seems like this loud, uncouth trophy wife who is completely self-involved.
Monica: YES, it makes you wonder why the dad married her. Perhaps, being an optimist and seeing where she came from, he thought he could help her? Do we ever actually determine if she’s beautiful or not? I kind of assume she is because that other man at the funeral (the drunk one) was really soft on her.
Tom: You know, I’m not sure, I’ve just been stereotyping her as a blonde bimbo. Major Bullock, wasn’t he the drunk one? He was sort of sympathetic because he was the only one giving Fay a (unnecessary, if you ask me) chance. But also it made me think he was a bit of an old perv.
Monica: Exactly, hahaha, yes. But I will say, there were two points in which I was interested in Fay and not enraged at her. The first was when they first got back to the house. While everybody was really nice and supportive of Laurel, I felt a little sympathetic because Fay moved in as the second wife, and the first one was obviously beloved in the community. And it did seem that, in a small town, she would never really fit in.
Tom: That’s true, lots of sniping going on in that funerary scene.
Monica: The second was when her family arrived. What da fuck was that all about? Fay obviously comes from nothing, and it seemed like she was both happy and embarrassed to see them (the fact that she got out of a really poor bumpkin town makes me think she’s quite beautiful).
Tom: Oh yes, the county bumpkins, a little touch of comic relief. They were quite the eccentric lot. Hillbilly to the core.
Monica: I know, it became very confusing, the whole lot of them. Which I thought was a nice literary touch actually. The whole funeral scene was very masterful.
Tom: With Fay’s melodramatic mourning against Laurel’s more coldblooded demeanor.
Monica: Yes, and the way all the different groups helped or mourned. The old men were funny too.
Tom: Interesting that Fay’s family drove all the way from their hometown for such a short time – to help Fay, or to scavenge?
Monica: I think both, because remember at the end of part two the mother was like, well, we could always move in with you. The bit about Laurel resenting the open casket was interesting.
Tom: Yes, interesting because it seemed to put her at odds with not just Fay, but also the community, who seemed to think open casket was the right decision. Even though Laurel is embraced by the community, she is also apart from it. She did after all run far away for work.
Monica: They did indeed. Well, she is a working woman. And is a widow.
Tom: Yes, which hasn’t come up much at all.
Monica: No, feel like it will though.
Tom: This is definitely a book about women though. They definitely seem to be the main figures in the drama, aside from the first chapter of the first part. At the funeral, for instance, the men-folk are subordinate to their wives. And in the hospital, Doctor Courtland only appears as a figure flitting in and out, while Judge McKelva is bedridden. It’s Fay, Laurel and the nurse who are impactful.
Monica: It’s true, and all of the women are very different.
Tom: Yes, in a way almost archetypal. Neighbor Adele – the old mother figure. Fay – the trophy wife. Laurel – the… not sure what to make of Laurel exactly.
Monica: I think Laurel is the outsider woman. I think Laurel’s mother is going to come back into the picture. I wonder if Laurel resents her father for remarrying. She certainly hates Fay.
Tom: I wonder if it’s going to continue to be Fay versus Laurel, wife versus daughter, passion versus self-possession. They have been most purposefully juxtaposed. But was that just to introduce Laurel? And now we’ll go somewhere else with her, after Fay has been packed off to hillbilly country?
Monica: In some ways Fay seems a bit like a side character. I feel like we may not see much more of her. I think it’s maybe more of a story about Laurel’s relationship with her hometown. And her relationship with the past.
Tom: Well I guess that would be a good reason to call the book The Optimist’s Daughter! Though interesting she’s defined by her father, right in that title.
Monica: It is odd, isn’t it? She’s traveled so far away, and yet is still defined by where she’s come from.
Tom: It’s quite a gloomy book really. I’m glad you brought in the word ‘specter’ earlier because it does feel like Laurel is haunted by death. Honestly. I’m not sure I’m enjoying it at this stage. It’s sort of wretched. The banality of death.
Monica: Yea, I agree. Luckily it’s a short book, because it feels very heavy. And ponderous.
Tom: Haha yes! It does ponder awfully. Anything else to add?
Monica: Just that I hope Fay’s family returns, ‘cause I found them quite funny.
Tom: Haha, the sole ray of light – or should I say, the sole Fay of light?