Laurel McKelva Hand, a widow from Mississippi who now designs fabrics in Chicago, is called to New Orleans, where her elderly father is undergoing an eye operation. Laurel is anxious. Her experiences with the health issues of her mother were not good; there is a sense that something about her mother’s final illness wasn’t handled well.
Judge McKelva’s new wife, Fay, younger than Laurel, is vulgar, frivolous, and stupid. She objects to the procedure. But the judge has a cataract in his other eye, and without the operation at this time, he would end up blind. Dr. Courland thinks the operation will save the judge’s sight, so it is performed.
While the judge struggles to recover, Fay complains about missing Mardi Gras and goes shopping. Unfortunately, as they say, the operation is successful but the patient dies. Although the judge is ordered not to move, his wife shakes him, later saying she was trying to “shake him into life.”
Back home for the funeral in the small town of Mount Salus, Mississippi, Laurel is greeted by old friends who are preparing for the funeral. Fay arrives later and is obviously upset at what she views as an intrusion. It soon appears that Becky, Judge McKelva’s first wife, is the elephant in the room, along with the genteel friends’ incomprehension of what led the judge to marry Fay.
Since Fay has told everyone she has no family, they are surprised when the Chisoms arrive from Texas for the funeral. They are obliviously and cheerfully vulgar, and they add a good deal of macabre humor to the funeral. Fay is so determined that the judge will not be buried next to Becky that she buries him in the unpleasant newer part of the cemetery, right next to the new interstate.
When Fay leaves briefly for a visit with her family, she makes it clear that she expects Laurel to be out of her house when she returns a few days later. Laurel must reconcile herself to the loss of all her parents’ belongings and her childhood home as well as residual pain about both her parents’ and her husband’s death.
This very short novel, written in 1972, is considered Welty’s best, although I confess to a preference for the more lovable The Ponder Heart. The Optimist’s Daughter compresses a lot in just a few pages. At times, the Southern darkness almost reminds me of the grotesque humor of Flannery O’Connor, who is a bit too much for me, but Welty is kinder to her characters.