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

by Eudora Welty

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1,584484,603 (3.5)175
Member:marinajuric
Title:The Optimist's Daughter
Authors:Eudora Welty
Info:Vintage (1990), Paperback, 192 pages
Collections:Read in 2012, Read but unowned
Rating:***
Tags:None

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The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty (1972)

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Showing 1-5 of 42 (next | show all)
Clearly the weakest of her novels as it lacks the joy of life that pervades the others. However, the release that Laurel finds in the end creates a note of hope. ( )
  AliceAnna | Oct 22, 2014 |
Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: The Optimist's Daughter is the story of Laurel McKelva Hand, a young woman who has left the South and returns, years later, to New Orleans, where her father is dying. After his death, she and her silly young stepmother go back still farther, to the small Mississippi town where she grew up. Alone in the old house, Laurel finally comes to an understanding of the past, herself, and her parents.

My Review: This is the novel that won Miss Eudora a Pulitzer Prize. She deserved all the awards going, but to select this one of her novels for an overdue honor...? Not that it's bad or anything, it's just...well...beautiful writing telling an ordinary woman's ordinary experience of coping with, understanding, death and aging. Evergreen themes to be sure, and again I stress the beautiful writing bit:
“Up home we loved a good storm coming, we’d fly outdoors and run up and down to meet it,” her mother used to say. “We children would run as fast as we could go along the top of that mountain when the wind was blowing, holding our arms right open. The wilder it blew the better we liked it.”
Yes. All of me knows that's true, and my inward ear rejoices in the music of it. But why it comes where it does, well, it's to make or re-make a point that's made.

Fine in shorter fiction. Gets tedious in longer fiction. This is *barely* over novella length and it coulda been shorter. Maybe even shoulda been.

But then there's, “At the sting in her eyes, she remembered for him that there must be no tears in his.” Oh. My. GOODNESS. Or this piece of gorgeousness, a tossaway line: “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.” I could faint right now, saying it over and over, absorbing the *exactly*perfect* choice of words, savoring the rhythm, the heartbeat of it.

But the most frequent cry I hear against Miss Eudora's work is, "But NOTHING happens!" That's nonsense. Things happen, things that as we grow older we see clearer, things that don't involve fires and floods, or car, plane, boat trips to places near and far. Things that change the bone and meat of you, not the skin:
And perhaps it didn't matter to them, not always, what they read aloud; it was the breath of life flowing between them, and the words of the moment riding on it that held them in delight. Between some two people every word is beautiful, or might as well be beautiful.
And that, that right there, is my personal definition of what a marriage should be. I'd say "don't settle for less!" but there'd be more single people than there are places to house them.

So yes, things happen, yes, things and people change and grow and learn, but it takes a quiet and reserved readerly touch to see it, find it, winkle it out from the words. Action? Little. Characterization? Lots, maybe too much for some characters' ability to sustain our interest (Fay!). Discovery? Well.
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.
In you step, now, and mind the gap.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. ( )
6 vote richardderus | Jul 13, 2014 |
okay -- so maybe it is the urgent state of my brain - a bit exhausted and unfocused - but, man! i did not like this story much at all. i found it awkward and clunky (the style and flow of reading). i feel i get what welty was going for here, showing us this slice of life. for me, though, it just wasn't successful. i really had to force myself to read the whole thing - which is kind of sad when the book is a pulitzer winner and so short. but there you go. blech. ( )
  DawsonOakes | Jun 22, 2014 |
Our title character, Laurel, is a young widowed woman who returns home to Mississippi when her father becomes ill. Soon she finds herself reeling after his death and she must grieve while trying to deal with her acerbic step-mother Fay.

The descriptions of Laurel’s time in her hometown felt so real to me. I remember going through the motions of regular life while being wracked with grief. I could feel her frustration as she has to listen to old biddies gossip and prattle on with their exaggerated stories when all she wants is to be alone with her pain. The plot never became melodramatic; instead Laurel calmly suffers through the indignities of dealing with unbearable neighbors and old friends. She keeps her thoughts to herself, processing things in her own quiet way.

One thing that really rang true for me was Laurel’s struggle between what she knew of her father and what people were saying about him. People’s memories of the deceased are often contradictory. They are tainted with our own opinions and experiences. Laurel’s know this, but it’s still painful to hear people wax poetic about her father in a way that doesn’t ring true.

“What’s happening isn’t real,” Laurel said, low.
“The ending of a man’s life on earth is very real indeed,” Miss Adele said.
“But what people are saying.”

Fay is a character that’s easy to dislike, but when I dig a bit deeper I can’t help but pity her. She marries up in her mind and her new husband provides an escape from the family and life she despises. Now he’s gone and she’s bitter and angry. She can’t help but feel abandoned and she’s taking the pain out on everyone around her.

BOTTOM LINE: This is the first work of Welty’s I have ever read, but it won’t be the last. Her writing invokes Laurel’s claustrophobic angst so easily, I felt like I was right there with her.

“For there is hate as well as love, she supposed, in the coming together and continuing of our lives.”

“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." ( )
1 vote bookworm12 | Jun 11, 2014 |
Superb. ( )
  William345 | Jun 11, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 42 (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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A nurse held the door open for them.
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. (Introduction)
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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 Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:48:50 -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)

(summary from another edition)

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