Thursday, July 11, 2013
The Optimist's Daughter
Read: 19 April to 23 April 2013
5 / 5 stars
While I do tend to take my sweet time moseying toward a review after finishing a book, stewing both over and in my thoughts for often days at a time before taking the perfectionist's route to laboring over my words (or slapping some observations together to see what sticks and hoping that no one points out the crooked seams or varicolored threads), trying to sort and figure out what I want to say about The Optimist's Daughter was an especially difficult task. It wasn't until a friend (who is often exactly what I need to pry a sticky thought loose from the place where things elude elucidation) left a comment on the in-progress version of this review that I saw where the difficulties lie. The problem was not, as I mistakenly believed at first, the unfortunate truth that it is mighty hard talking about a much-loved book beyond HOLY MOTHER OF BACONATOR, THIS BOOK ROCKED MY FACE OFF: It's that I've been trying to use my head to approach a book that I felt almost entirely in my heart. (And also that I suffer from a paralyzing fear of sounding corny in a public forum, which made the immediately preceding confession hard to even consider typing.)
So let me try to establish where I was emotionally during most of my time reading The Optimist's Daughter: I spent an evening with my little brother, his girlfriend and some other fine folks in celebration of my future sister-in-law turning 21 (as I spent my 21st birthday starting and finishing a 20-page final paper and then moving out of my dorm room for the summer, I embraced the opportunity to properly observe a milestone event that I never thought I'd help a loved one usher in again). My brother and I have a significant amount of beef with our parents, which invariably leads us to vent about our deplorable origins whenever we're together, though this being a happy occasion called for minimal mutual griping.
Later, since hubs and I live tantalizingly close to a bar, we made a midnight sojourn to the local watering hole on our way home because, hey, why not go all the way and keep drinking? As I've demonstrated many times before, I'm at a point where I'm pretty comfortable talking about life as a self-appointed orphan; my husband knows this better than anyone else but is still reluctant to broach the topic unless I lead the way (or, you know, we receive another letter from a collection agency about my mother's mounting debt). But, even in the wake of listening to my brother and me swap abbreviated grievances about our progenitors, it wasn't 'til after a few lips-loosening rounds that hubs asked if the wound of severing all ties with my family still hurts. But, really, you can't miss what you never had and you can't hurt where there's no feeling left. I didn't grow up with a fraction of the love I now feel when I spend the holidays or a just-because afternoon with my husband's family, nuclear and extended. I have, however, been blessed with a second chance at finding out what a close-knit family feels like, to have in-laws who regard me as the daughter they've always wanted and with a parental warmth I've never known.
So it was with that mindset that I approached a considerable chunk of Eudora Welty's Pulitzer Prize-winning gem of a novel. Laurel, the 40-some-year-old widow who watched her mother die years before and now stands helplessly aside as her beloved father gives himself up to his age, is left with her caustic young stepmother, hometown friends and neighbors, and a house filled with memories as she grapples with making sense of life without the safety net of unconditional love that all good parents offer their children.
Please do not misunderstand: This is not one of those novels that is eking by on bland mawkishness alone. The writing is sublime. I have spent so much time entrenched in the long-held belief that anyone who opted for five words when twice as many could be deployed just as easily is guilty of not trying hard enough. Discovering Raymond Carver has been instrumental in changing my tune, though the impact of this book alone would have been enough to silence the mulishly stubborn biases of my youth. Welty rivals Carver when it comes to packing a brutalizing force in just enough detail to act as a guiding light through the narrative but leaving so much unsaid that the reader is left to contemplate the implications while affixing his or her own personal relevancies to deliver the intended blow of dawning clarity. There is an awesome power in Welty's words but it's her silent symbols that convey the most involuble truths. The sadness and loss bursting from both the spoken and un- very nearly had this novel thrumming with compounded grief that needed an outlet before the pages themselves imploded with unexpressed emotions.
That outlet is Laurel's histrionic, selfish and utterly unlikeable stepmother, Fay, who reminded me so much of my mother that I couldn't help but pound this book that I loved against whatever surface was closest to me in achingly frustrated empathy for Laurel. While Laurel is reacquainting herself with her parents as individuals whose context is purely historical and complete now, understanding their place in her life and their significance to each other, coming to the kind of epiphany that is the only preface to closure, Fay runs off with her equally insufferable family as if the death of a spouse is the kind of thing one gets over with a carelessly impoverishing shopping binge and a pedicure. The final run-in between these two women who are unsettlingly close-in-age (but light years apart in maturity, ye gods) does make for a clunky delivery of the message that Welty implied so well that she certainty didn't need her main character to verbalize it. But their confrontation is so satisfying on a primal level. It worked for me because grief and loss are not tidy processes. And it also served as long-awaited proof that I can be positively smitten with a book despite a fist-clenchingly hateful character's prominent role in it.
Even with an ending that seems to mar an otherwise flawless reading experience for so many others, The Optimist's Daughter is beautiful and human and sings of what great writing can do when a great writer is firing on all cylinders. But it is a book that I just could not approach academically. It deserves to be savored and marveled at and its sharp edges absolutely should leave a few cuts and reopened old wounds in its aftermath. It is a book that should, above all, be felt to be fully appreciated.