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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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1,662584,330 (3.52)188
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 (51)  Spanish (5)  Catalan (1)  German (1)  All languages (58)
Showing 1-5 of 51 (next | show all)
Pleasant enough, but perhaps a little dated. I enjoyed it, but had an "Is that all there is" feeling at the end. ( )
  VashonJim | Sep 6, 2015 |
The Optimist's Daughter is told from the point of view of Laurel, a 40 something year old woman working in Chicago who grew up in the small town of Mount Salus, Mississippi. She has returned to the South to be there for her father, who is having eye surgery. He ends up dying and the book becomes not only about his death, but also the death of Laurel's mother about ten years prior, and Laurel's husband who died in the war. There is conflict between Laurel and Fay, her father's new wife, but there is also support from the family friends from Mount Salus where Laurel goes for her father's funeral.

I found a lot to think about and a lot to enjoy in this slim novel by Eudora Welty. I'd never read anything by Welty before, and I loved the way she writes and the language and cadence she uses. This was a book that I slowed down for and read aloud in my head instead of speeding along. ( )
1 vote japaul22 | Jun 16, 2015 |
Members of Book Club liked it much better than I did. The story of a man in Mississippi dying. His career daughter, Laurel, comes to be with him and his second wife, Faye, a woman much different and younger than Laurel's mother. The first part of the book is the Judge's time in the hospital. Faye is almost cruel and unfeeling and Laurel doesn't seem to react much to her actions. The second part of the book is the funeral and aftermath. This part is somewhat more interesting as Faye's family comes for the funeral. The family is definitely not of the social class of the Judge or Laurel's "bridesmaids" (her long time friends) who gather around her providing support.

This is my first Eudora Welty book and frankly, I was disappointed. There is a lot of "philosophizing" which sometimes is just hard to figure out. Wanted to like it much better than I did. ( )
  maryreinert | Apr 28, 2015 |
A short, sad, perfectly crafted little book about the inevitable passage of all things. Laurel McKelva goes back to the South to take care of her father, who's due to have an operation. His unexpected death gives her a chance to do some hard thinking about how the tragedies in her own family history have made her into the person she is. Like much of Southern literature, the real action in this book seems to have happened sometime in the past, and the characters we meet spend much of their time coming to terms with it. This sort of thing can easily dissolve into sentimental reverie, but Welty, to her credit, seems determined to avoid that trap. For some of her characters, particularly Laurel, who has made a separate life for herself in Chicago, the past refuses to lie still and continually unsettles the minds of those who are left to deal with it. At times a jarringly unsentimental character, her memories of her parents amount to puzzle pieces that refuse to fit the picture supplied by others, and it's wonderful to see Welty's characters negotiate these incongruities. The emotional toll of various kinds of losses suffuses the book, and Welty seems to be an expert on how disappointment and unexpected disasters affect people in the long term. Her description of the McKelva's tense and often dysfunctional family dynamics is both extremely perceptive and absolutely heartbreaking.

What the reader is left with is a portrait of a changing town, in which Old South manners and social arrangements are swiftly giving way to a more modern, more standardized way of American life. Many readers may detect a strong hint of classism here, and while many of the characters we meet in Mt. Salus seem comic, the author does seem to argue that something valuable is being lost with the passing of their way of life. Welty's description of Laurel's stepmother, a Texan from an undistinguished family who has no regard for either the past or for book learning, is both harsh and funny, but I expect that many Americans may recognize something about her, too. I beleive that the author's principal concern is a bit more personal: she's interested in exploring how people try to reconstitute themselves after their personal coordinates inevitably begin to fade away. From this perspective, Laurel McKelva seems like a survivor. "The Optimist's Daugher," which clocks in at less than two hundred pages, is a very dense and multifaceted little book: the author somehow succeeds in addressing both personal tragedy and sweeping social change in a pocket-size work. It's hardly an easy read, but I expect that I'll be revisiting it. ( )
  TheAmpersand | Apr 24, 2015 |
You can see why Ms. Welty is an institution when you read this book. There are so many great quotes, examples of completely true but uniquely conceived observations of life. I'd come back to this book as an example of how to freshen up my own writing. That said, the novel is very inward focused, tracing the journey of a specific woman's grief, of a specific time and place in the American South, that some may find it too slow or quiet to suit their tastes. ( )
  Sarah_Beaudette | Apr 13, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 51 (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)

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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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