"Poignant, wise and economical" says Helen McNeil in her introduction to Eudora Welty's 1972 novel The Optimist's Daughter, and the book is all those things. Beautifully observed, and showing the sharpest ear for dialogue I've come across in a long time, it's a sad story with moments of great humour, thoughtful, moving - almost a writers' template, or at least a measure of high quality prose.
Laurel has come home to Mount Salus as her father, the highly respected Judge McKelva, is having trouble with his sight. Attending the hospital consultation with the Judge and his new wife, the much younger Wanda Fay, Laurel finds it hard to understand her father's actions in marrying again - "what happened to [the Judge's] judgment?". As events run their course, and the family home becomes the focus for recollection and resolve, Laurel gains a new understanding of her upbringing and that reconciliation allows her to move on.
I can see why Anne Tyler says Eudora Welty is, for her, "the model for how all writers ought to be," and I was greatly taken by the book's voice, its contained domestic setting, its perfectly judged detail, the depth of understanding of human nature it shows and the far-sightedness behind it. I loved the Judge, a man of presence and delicacy and "capacity for patience", though like Laurel and others I was baffled by his taking up with the dreadful Wanda Fay. I loved the book's Southern lilt, and lines and passages good enough to make me stop and savour them, for instance, Laurel remembers as a child arriving in West Virginia: "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."
For me, then, this book has been a wonderful discovery, and the first of what I hope will be a great deal by or about Eudora Welty. How about you?