“Is it the Carnival?” asks Fay, as she and Laurel ride through New Orleans in a taxi. It is Mardi Gras, though hardly a festive occasion: The two have just left a hospital where, less than an hour earlier, they witnessed the death of Judge McKelva, Fay’s husband and Laurel’s father.
Fay’s incongruous question typifies the uncomprehending, inadequate, and inappropriate responses to life by many characters in The Optimist’s Daughter. The world of these characters is a microcosm of the larger world glimpsed through carnival-week New Orleans, where Laurel can hear “the crowd noise, the unmistakable sound of hundreds, of thousands, of people blundering.” To Laurel, all of them, especially Fay and her Snopesian kinfolk, are part of “the great, interrelated family of those who never know the meaning of what has happened to them.”
Despite its characters’ bafflement, the novel tells a simple story. Laurel temporarily leaves her Chicago studio to be at home with her father after he mentions casually that he is consulting the family doctor for an eye problem. Together, he, Laurel, and Fay—his new wife after ten years as a widower—travel to New Orleans, where they learn that he needs surgery for a torn retina. Fay quickly reveals her selfishness by exclaiming, “I don’t see why this had to happen to me.”
Though the operation is a success, Fay lacks the patience to wait out her husband’s convalescence. Angry and uncomprehending, she tries to goad him into leaving his...
(The entire section is 633 words.)