Sunday, July 13, 2014

Another Beautiful Title: THE OPTIMIST'S DAUGHTER


Vintage Books
$13.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: The Optimist's Daughter is the story of Laurel McKelva Hand, a young woman who has left the South and returns, years later, to New Orleans, where her father is dying. After his death, she and her silly young stepmother go back still farther, to the small Mississippi town where she grew up. Alone in the old house, Laurel finally comes to an understanding of the past, herself, and her parents.

My Review: This is the novel that won Miss Eudora a Pulitzer Prize. She deserved all the awards going, but to select this one of her novels for an overdue honor...? Not that it's bad or anything, it's just...well...beautiful writing telling an ordinary woman's ordinary experience of coping with, understanding, death and aging. Evergreen themes to be sure, and again I stress the beautiful writing bit:
“Up home we loved a good storm coming, we’d fly outdoors and run up and down to meet it,” her mother used to say. “We children would run as fast as we could go along the top of that mountain when the wind was blowing, holding our arms right open. The wilder it blew the better we liked it.”
Yes. All of me knows that's true, and my inward ear rejoices in the music of it. But why it comes where it does, well, it's to make or re-make a point that's made.

Fine in shorter fiction. Gets tedious in longer fiction. This is *barely* over novella length and it coulda been shorter. Maybe even shoulda been.

But then there's, “At the sting in her eyes, she remembered for him that there must be no tears in his.” Oh. My. GOODNESS. Or this piece of gorgeousness, a tossaway line: “She was sent to sleep under a velvety cloak of words, richly patterned and stitched with gold, straight out of a fairy tale, while they went reading on into her dreams.” I could faint right now, saying it over and over, absorbing the *exactly*perfect* choice of words, savoring the rhythm, the heartbeat of it.

But the most frequent cry I hear against Miss Eudora's work is, "But NOTHING happens!" That's nonsense. Things happen, things that as we grow older we see clearer, things that don't involve fires and floods, or car, plane, boat trips to places near and far. Things that change the bone and meat of you, not the skin:
And perhaps it didn't matter to them, not always, what they read aloud; it was the breath of life flowing between them, and the words of the moment riding on it that held them in delight. Between some two people every word is beautiful, or might as well be beautiful.
And that, that right there, is my personal definition of what a marriage should be. I'd say "don't settle for less!" but there'd be more single people than there are places to house them.

So yes, things happen, yes, things and people change and grow and learn, but it takes a quiet and reserved readerly touch to see it, find it, winkle it out from the words. Action? Little. Characterization? Lots, maybe too much for some characters' ability to sustain our interest (Fay!). Discovery? Well.
At their very feet had been the river. The boat came breasting out of the mist, and in they stepped. All new things in life were meant to come like that.
In you step, now, and mind the gap.

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