The Optimist's Daughter

The Optimist's Daughter

Book - 1972
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This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel tells 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. Along in the old house, Laurel finally comes to an understanding of the past, herself, and her parents.
Publisher: New York, Random House [1972]
Edition: 1st ed
ISBN: 9780679728832
067972883X
Branch Call Number: F Wel

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m
mayog
Dec 27, 2018

Having never read Welty before, I didn't know what to expect. I found I had to restart this book after getting about 2/3rds of the way through, to read it more slowly, and to try again to understand Welty's points. In one sense, the book is about a white southern family: father, mother, daughter, son-in-law--all of whom have died except the daughter. This is underscored over and again by the characters who concern themselves with Laurel McKelva Hand, the surviving family member, now both an orphan and a widow. In another, it's a study of southern manners, class and regional distinctions, and the prejudices that arise between white people. Here we see the interaction between Fay and Fay's family and the people of Mt. Salus, as well as the interaction between Becky and Becky's family up home and the Mt. Salus elite. In yet another, it's a prose-poem on memory written by a 63-year old woman reflecting back on those questions in her own life. Thus we get some amazing quotations on memory, like this one:

Memory returned like spring, Laurel thought. Memory had the character of spring. In some cases, it was the old wood that did the blooming."

And this one

It is memory that is the somnambulist. It will come back in its wounds from across the world, like Phil, 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.

Or, one can read it as a meditation on death and dying. Thus

There was a deep boom, like the rolling in of an ocean wave. The hearse door had been slammed shut

and also

What burdens we lay on the dying, Laurel thought, as she listened now to the accelerated rain on the roof: seeking to prove some little thing that we can keep to comfort us when they can no longer feel--something as incapable of being kept as of being proved: the lastingness of memory, vigilance against harm, self-reliance, good hope, trust in one another.

At the same time, I had a hard time feeling for any of the characters. I don't fully understand how either McKelva parent died, and that's confusing to me. I don't know why Laurel didn't remarry; I can surmise, but do not know for sure, that Fay's lying is a failed attempt to "pass" within Judge McKelva's inner circle. I neither like nor particularly dislike the judge nor Becky McKelva, nor any other character. I'm just not sure Eudora Welty made me want to care about them.

JCLJoyceM Jun 23, 2017

My first Eudora Welty novel may be my last. I found her dialogue difficult to follow. The second wife with her unusually high opinion of herself despite lack of evidence is the most intriguing character.

e
EmilyEm
Mar 02, 2017

Daughter Laurel and her younger step-mother Fay navigate her father’s last weeks of life and his death in New Orleans and a small Mississippi town.

Amazing characterizations and a great view of small town sensibilities. Howard Moss wrote in a 'New York Times' review in 1972, "Two kinds of people, two versions of life, two contending forces in America collide in 'The Optimist's Daughter.' Its small dramatic battle sends reverberations in every direction." Oh, the power of memory! A classic.

r
rusty_13
Nov 03, 2014

I love the flavor of Southern writing and this little book is one of the best I've read. It's about a youngish widow who leaves her independent life in Chicago to return to her hometown in Mississippi to care for her dad -- and must contend with his new wife.

Indigo_Cobra_8 Apr 05, 2014

Sure, the language is nice, if you're into that sort of thing. But meh, it was boring.

emily8 Feb 12, 2013

recommend - fine choice of language

Quotes

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m
mayog
Dec 28, 2018

But the guilt of outliving those you love is justly to be borne, she thought. Outliving is something we do to them. The fantasies of dying could be no stranger than the fantasies of living. Surviving is perhaps the strangest fantasy of them all.

m
mayog
Dec 28, 2018

It is memory that is the somnambulist. It will come back in its wounds from across the world, like Phil, 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.

m
mayog
Dec 28, 2018

What burdens we lay on the dying, Laurel thought, as she listened now to the accelerated rain on the roof: seeking to prove some little thing that we can keep to comfort us when they can no longer feel--something as incapable of being kept as of being proved: the lastingness of memory, vigilance against harm, self-reliance, good hope, trust in one another.

Age

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m
mayog
Dec 27, 2018

mayog thinks this title is suitable for 14 years and over

Summary

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m
mayog
Dec 28, 2018

Laurel McKelva Hand returns to the south from Chicago to accompany her father, Judge Clinton McKelva and his new wife Fay as he enters an operation for his eyes. The judge dies while in hospital, and Laurel is left to contend with Fay, who invents lies about herself at every turn to evade her past life growing up in a trailer in Texas, with the judge's old friends, and with the previous deaths of her mother and her husband.

Notices

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m
mayog
Dec 27, 2018

Other: death and dying

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