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The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty

The Optimist's Daughter (original 1972; edition 1990)

by Eudora Welty

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1,840753,771 (3.54)200
Title:The Optimist's Daughter
Authors:Eudora Welty
Info:Vintage (1990), Paperback, 192 pages
Collections:Read in 2012, Read but unowned

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The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty (1972)


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English (68)  Spanish (5)  Catalan (1)  German (1)  All (75)
Showing 1-5 of 68 (next | show all)
A beautifully written and enjoyable story of Southern women and the Southern culture. I know some of those folks. They live in my small town. ( )
1 vote Pat_Gibson | May 28, 2017 |
This isn’t the first time I’ve been disappointed by a Pulitzer Prize winner and it probably won’t be the last.... but for heavens sakes - what were the judges thinking?

"The Optimist’s Daughter" falls short on all fronts. The characters are vastly one dimensional. The plot almost non existent, the dialogue cryptic, the theme may be clear to some people but was abstract to me. And it is a total mystery why the book was titled "The Optimist’s Daughter".

This is the story of a 40 year old woman - an only child, coming back to her home town because her father, a respected judge and pillar of the community is having an operation on his eyes. Judge McKelva is an optimist.... so the title says. But in reality, he seems like just the opposite. In fact, I would venture to say he’s given up on life. His second marriage to a very young, crude, self-centered trailer-trash wench seems to have left him helplessly shattered and lethargic. So much so, that he dies in his New Orleans hospital bed after wicked wife number two yells at him for ruining her chance to enjoy Mardi Gras.

That is the opening chapter. After the unexpected - and largely unexplained death the bereaved daughter, and the disgruntled wife go back to the family house. The last three-quarters of the short novella takes place at the house and cemetery with a variety of characters; neighbors, towns-people, the wife’s family, and the daughter’s friends. There is nothing substantial revealed about any of the characters past. It takes on the semblance of watching a play enacted on a stage. What you see is what you get. The funeral is an awkward fiasco.

Amidst odd bits of dialogue which are presented in such a way that makes one feel like an outsider eavesdropping (on strangers) Eudora Welty leaves it up to the reader to figure out what the story is all about - but the characters are not interesting enough to make the effort. And the story, less than 180 pages, is so abrupt there is no time to develop a vested interest in the outcome.

What does exist of a plot barely seems realistic. That a staunch conservative judge could impulsively marry someone half his age who is so horribly ignorant. And that too is annoying. The over-stated exaggerated ignorance.... the wife was like a seven year old throwing one big long continuous tantrum... a bit over-the-top ridiculous.

Welty’s writing style is simplistic, but eloquent. For that alone I believe she accumulated many awards over the years for her fictional writing. Some readers may feel that is all they need in a novel. I expect more. In fact, I would trade some of the eloquence for a good captivating plot or realistic deeply drawn characters. ( )
  LadyLo | Feb 6, 2017 |
won a Pulitzer Prize — okay — death + dying — why?

This story of a young woman's confrontation with death and her past is a poetic study of human relations.
  christinejoseph | Sep 16, 2016 |
- La verdadera amistad es un murmullo del espíritu que nada puede sustituir, que no se cambia por nada en el mundo, que es, a fin de cuentas, todo (pg. 179) ( )
  naturaworld | Aug 12, 2016 |
Laurel McKelva Hood travels from her life in Chicago to her childhood home in Mississippi to assist her father, a retired judge, deal with transitions. Clint McKelva has vision difficulty and he seems to be acting somewhat older than he is. [Damn! And he's younger than I am.] A decade or so back, his wife Becky, Laurel's mother, died. Just a year or two ago, he met and abruptly married Kay, a woman younger than his daughter.

Though the Judge seems content with his current marriage, his daughter is not. She was astonished when Clint remarried. She believes Kay to be narcissistic, and both unaware and unappreciative of Clint's role in the community. (Needless to say, Laurel is mystified by the marriage.)

Following seemingly successful surgery to save his eyesight, the Judge steadily declines. He's trapped in a New Orleans hospital bed, sandbags against his head to prevent movement that could undo the delicate surgery. In this moment, Laurel and Kay reach a shaky accord in which they'll split bedside attendance. On her watch, Laurel reads Dickens to her father. Kay, on the other hand, frets and fumes about this imposition on her life.

Clint dies.

A funeral service is set. Friends and neighbors gather at the house where Laurel grew up, the house that's now Kay's. Kay has always maintained she has no one—parents dead, no siblings—so both she and the denizens of Mount Salus, Mississippi are floored when Mother, Sis and Bubba, and other assorted Chisoms tumble out of their pickup truck and walk into the house. Like Kay, they're loud and coarse and unaware and jes' plain as dirt. Turns out that Clint knew of them and had directed a friend to invite the Chisom family of Madrid, Texas to attend, if a funeral should be necessary.

There's more, of course.

It's been pointed out that nothing much happens in The Optimist's Daughter. A man dies, his daughter and his lifelong friends and neighbors gather to memorialize him, and his much-younger second wife has hissy fits. It's a study of class, of the rednecks vs. the bourgeoisie.

Despite its brevity, I think this is a very rich novel. Two months after reading it, I think that still. Much of the enjoyment for me came out of the dialog, in what the characters say to each other, and in how they alter their words, their messages, according to the situation, the context, and who they're addressing. Everything seems telling and important. Quite the accomplishment. Eudora Welty won the Pulitzer Prize for this novel. And I award it two thumbs up.
  weird_O | Jul 1, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 68 (next | show all)
The best book Eudora Welty has ever written, "The Optimist's Daughter" is a long goodbye in a very short space not only to the dead but to delusion and to sentiment as well.
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Poignant, wise, and economical, The Optimist's Daughter was written for the New Yorker in 1969 and then revised and extended to its present form in 1972, when it won the Pulitzer Prize.
A nurse held the door open for them.
When Laurel was a child, in this room and in this bed where she lay now, she closed her eyes like this and the rhythmic, nighttime sound of the two beloved reading voices came rising in turn up the stairs every night to reach her. She could hardly fall asleep, she tried to keep awake, for pleasure. She cared for her own books, but she cared more for theirs, which meant their voices. In the lateness of the night, their two voices reading to each other where she could hear them, never letting a silence divide or interrupt them, combined into one unceasing voice and wrapped her around as she listened, as still as if she were asleep. 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.
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Book description
For a long time Judge McKelva was seen as a reassuring figure by the many who knew and liked him. They looked at him, with his wife Becky and daughter Laurel, and they felt good: that was how well-bred people in Mount Salus, Mississippi, ought to be. When, ten years after his wife's death, the Judge marries silly young Fay everyone is disconcerted: but a lonely old man can be allowed at least one folly. For Laurel, however, her father's remarriage is a difficult and puzzling betrayal. Years later, circumstance brings Laurel back from Chicage: first to New Orleans, then to Mount Salus and the old house of her childhood. It is only here, alone with her memories, that Laurel can finally come to an understanding of the past, herself and her parents.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 067972883X, Paperback)

The Optimist's Daughter is a compact and inward-looking little novel, a Pulitzer Prize winner that's slight of page yet big of heart. The optimist in question is 71-year-old Judge McKelva, who has come to a New Orleans hospital from Mount Salus, Mississippi, complaining of a "disturbance" in his vision. To his daughter, Laurel, it's as rare for him to admit "self-concern" as it is for him to be sick, and she immediately flies down from Chicago to be by his side. The subsequent operation on the judge's eye goes well, but the recovery does not. He lies still with both eyes heavily bandaged, growing ever more passive until finally--with some help from the shockingly vulgar Fay, his wife of two years--he simply dies. Together Fay and Laurel travel to Mount Salus to bury him, and the novel begins the inward spiral that leads Laurel to the moment when "all she had found had found her," when the "deepest spring in her heart had uncovered itself" and begins to flow again.

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

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:45 -0400)

(see all 7 descriptions)

Laurel Hand, long absent from the South, comes from Chicago to New Orleans, where her father dies after surgery. With Fay, the stupid new young wife of her father, Laurel returns to her former Mississippi home and stays a few days after the funeral for reunions with old friends. In a night alone in the house she grew up in, she confronts elements of the past and comes to a better understanding of it and of herself and her parents.… (more)

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