Not much actually happens in the rest of the book--Fay's low-rent relatives arrive for the funeral, a bird flies down the chimney and is trapped in the hall--and yet Welty manages to compress the richness of an entire life within its pages. This is a world, after all, in which a set of complex relationships can be conveyed by the phrase "I know his whole family" or by the criticism "When he brought her here to your house, she had very little idea of how to separate an egg." Does such a place exist anymore? It is vanishing even from this novel, and the personification of its vanishing is none other than Fay--petulant, graceless, childish, with neither the passion nor the imagination to love. Welty expends a lot of vindictive energy on Fay and her kin, who must be the most small-minded, mean-mouthed clan since the Snopeses hit Frenchman's Bend. There's more than just class snobbery at work here (though that surely comes into it too). As Welty sees it, they are a special historical tribe who exult in grieving because they have come to be good at it, and who seethe with resentment from the day they are born. They have come "out of all times of trouble, past or future--the great, interrelated family of those who never know the meaning of what has happened to them."
Fay belongs to the future, as she makes clear; it's Laurel who belongs to the past--Welty's own chosen territory. In her fine memoir, One Writer's Beginnings, Welty described the way art could shine a light back "as when your train makes a curve, showing that there has been a mountain of meaning rising behind you on the way you've come." Here, in one of her most autobiographical works, the past joins seamlessly with the present in a masterful evocation of grief, memory, loss, and love. Beautifully written, moving but never mawkish, The Optimist's Daughter is Eudora Welty's greatest achievement--which is high praise indeed. --Mary Park