Friday, March 18, 2011

The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty

The Optimist's Daughter
by Eudora Welty
Vintage International Edition, 1990
originally published 1972
180 pages

source: personal copy

In a nutshell:
Winner of the 1973 Pulitzer Prize, The Optimist's Daughter is a quiet novel of self-discovery.

My thoughts:
After reading just one novel and a short story by Eudora Welty, I'm prepared to state with confidence that this author is all about her characters. Of course there is a plot, but it's the characters that will be remembered after the last page is turned.

In The Optimist's Daughter, the optimist is Judge McKelva and his daughter is Laurel McKelva Hand.  Laurel, a young widow living in Chicago, travels to New Orleans to be with her ailing father as he undergoes what is ultimately an unsuccessful surgery. Her mother is dead and the judge married Fay, a silly, self-centered woman younger than Laurel, shortly afterwards. Laurel and Fay return to Mississippi for Judge McKelva's funeral. Alone in her childhood home, Laurel arrives at an understanding of her parents, the past, and herself. That is the plot in its entirety.

What makes the novel a delight, is the manner in which we gradually get to know the characters.  Passages describing Judge McKelva's appearance allow a clear, detailed picture to form in the reader's mind.
He lay there unchangeably big and heavy, full of effort yet motionless, while his face looked tireder every morning, the circle under his visible eye thick as paint. He opened his mouth and swallowed what she [Laurel] offered him with the obedience of an old man - obedience! She felt ashamed to let him act out the part in front of her. p.22
The judge's personality continues to emerge even after his death.
"This is still his house. After all, they're still his guests. They're misrepresenting him - falsifying, that's what Mother would call it." Laurel might have been trying to testify now for her father's sake, as though he were in process of being put on trial here instead of being viewed in his casket. "He never would have stood for lies being told about him. Not at any time. Not ever."
"Yes he would," said Miss Adele. "If the truth might hurt the wrong person." p.83
Fay is presented as a frivolous, self-centered woman and, although her words had me both laughing and rolling my eyes in exasperation, the picture remained constant.
"What a way to keep his promise," Fay said. "When he told me he'd bring me to New Orleans some day, it was to see the Carnival." She stared out the window [of the hospital]. "And the Carnival's going on right now. It looks like this is as close as we'll get to a parade." p.13
Laurel completes a journey of self-discovery as she learns more about her parents, their relationship, the past, and herself. The writing, at times, was simply beautiful and I can't begin to share all the flagged passages.
The past is no more open to help or hurt than was Father in his coffin. The past is like him, impervious, and can never be awakened. It is memory that is the somnambulist. It will come back in its wounds from across the world, like Phil [Laurel's dead husband], calling us by our names and demanding its rightful tears. It will never be impervious. The memory can be hurt, time and again - but in that may lie its final mercy. As long as it's vulnerable to the living moment, it lives for us, and while it lives, and while we are able, we can give it up its due. p. 179
Novels that slowly unfold to give a clearer picture of characters and their motivations can be counted on to captivate me. The Optimist's Daughter did exactly that.

My rating:

Bottom Line:  The Optimist's Daughter was a perfect introduction to the novels of Eudora Welty. Especially recommended for those who enjoy 'quieter' books.


  1. I haven't heard of this author before, so thank you for bringing to my attention. I quite like the odd quiet book.

  2. Sometimes "quiet" books are just so beautiful and perfect, but sometimes, sad to say, I get bored. This sounds like one I might enjoy, though.

  3. I have heard of this book, and it sounds like one for my list. I love well developed characters. For me, oftentimes more important than the plot.

    Nice to see the lake beginning to melt:0

  4. I have read for short stories by Welty recently (I have links to them on my blog)-I liked each one very much-I could see myself reading all of them-thanks for sharing your thoughts on The Optimist's Daughter

  5. Vivienne - She is one of our 'famous southern authors' here in the US. I just bought her collected stories and will post on them occasionally for Short Story Monday.

    Carol - This one was no problem, but sometimes I have to be in the right mood for quieter books. Looking forward to more Welty.

    Diane - The plot was actually very simple here, but watching the characters (especially Laurel) go from one place to another was fascinating.
    We may have a lake again in a couple of weeks ;-)

    Mel u - I just bought Welty's Collected Stories (got a good deal from Border's store closing sale). Look forward to reading through the collection, and will also keep an eye out for her other novels.

  6. I read Welty's "Delta Wedding" a few years back and while I liked her writing, I can't say I cared much for the story. I should pick this one up and give her another chance.

  7. Been meaning to read this for a long time. Yes, she is quiet, but sharp and quite funny (have only The Ponder Heart and a few stories read)--everything you say.
    Hope my library has a copy...

  8. Lisa - I don't know much about Delta Wedding, but will probably try The Ponder Heart next. I really liked her writing, too.

    DS - Oh, glad to hear you read The Ponder Heart! That's the one I'm thinking of reading next. Just bought The Collected Stories at our Border's store closing sale, too.

  9. This one sounds really interesting and a book that I may have to look into!

  10. I read this one a few years ago and really liked it. The characterisation was excellent, like you said.

  11. I'm typically story driven, but do enjoy the unfolding of characters. The book I'm reading right now is like that. And to think I almost didn't even pick it up.

  12. Staci - Hope you get a chance to read it!

    Nymeth - I really felt like I knew the characters well by the end of the novel. Hope to read The Ponder Heart next.

    Georgia Girls - I like to mix it up with plot vs. characters. The page-turners I enjoy are very plot-driven, but the books I settle into and love are often more focused on character.

  13. I read The Optimist's Daughter when I was in high school, and I don't remember it that well unfortunately. I remember that I did like it. I love Delta Wedding though. I've read it several times.

  14. Christy - Thanks for the recommendation! I've added Delta Wedding to my list and will keep an eye out for it. Will definitely be reading more Welty.

  15. I read this book about 15 years ago. I don't think I was a sophisticated enough reader at the time to really appreciate it. You're right about the characters though. I remember Laurel and Fay quite well.

  16. Lisa - I'm sure I wouldn't have appreciated this book as much 15 or 20 years ago either. Laurel and Fay, and even the judge, will stay with me for a long time.

  17. THIS is a terrific review. You captured it! I agree - 5 stars and only 4 to me for getting (failing) to recognize its full worth.

    1. Thanks, Care. I wrote better reviews back then, but still remember the characters and gorgeous writing.


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