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.
Laurel and Fay are forced together as the Judge's condition deteriorates, and he subsequently passes away. Fay is tremendously put out by his death, since it happens on her birthday. After the funeral she leaves town to be with her family. Laurel remains to sort through some of her father's effects and, since Fay has inherited the house, to remove memories of her mother, which she knows Fay will not respect.
Welty's writing is beautiful throughout, evoking a strong "sense of place". Here are just a few examples:
"The ancient porter was already rolling his iron-wheeled wagon to meet the baggage car, before the train halted. All six of Laurel's bridesmaids, as they still called themselves, were waiting on the station platform."
"The procession passed between ironwork gates whose kneeling angles and looping vines shone black as licorice."
"The gooseneck lamp threw its dimmed beam on the secretary's warm brown doors. It had been made of the cherry trees on the McKelva place a long time ago; on the lid, the numerals 1817 had been set into a not quite perfect oval of different wood, something smooth and yellow as a scrap of satin."
I was fully immersed in this book; wrapped in a blanket of beautiful prose. I will likely read more of Welty's work.
“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.”
“You know, sir, this operation is not, in any hands, a hundred percent predictable?"
"Well, I'm an optimist."
"I didn't know there were any more such animals," said Dr. Courtland.
"Never think you've seen the last of anything,”
There is some beautiful writing in [The Optimist's Daughter] by [[Eudora Welty]]. In it, Laurel, the daughter of respected Mississippian Judge McKelva, travels from her home in Chicago to a New Orleans hospital to join her 71 year old father before a critical eye operation. Laurel is a somber woman who still misses her husband, killed in World War II. She has to deal with the judge's new and younger wife Fay. Fay is a piece of work, childish, brash and totally self-centered. From her point of view, the operation unfairly impinges on her happiness, and because she can barely stand having the judge lie there in recovery,
Fay is three-dimensional, if awful. There is an uproar, and a lot of comedy, when her family shows up. We learn about Becky and her childhood in West Virginia, and Laurel's growing up with the judge and Becky, as Laurel looks back. A main theme of the book is Laurel, by having to stand her ground against Fay, finally coming to grips with her life and moving beyond the sad loss of her husband.
This novel was very good, although it didn't wow me. I suspect its fans were able to give larger dimensions to this small story than I was.
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."
With her typical economy, Welty weaves the complex story of a woman's coming to terms with the deaths of her husband, mother, and father and the secrets of her family's past. I first encountered this poignant character study as an undergrad and missed so much of its beauty and subtlety. Reading it a second time has truly made me homesick.
As indicated by the title, this is Laurel's story -- her coming to terms with losing the last surviving member of her family and the re-storying of her past. The novel has three major segues signalled by the book's divisions into four parts. The first moves from the death of Judge McKelva into the very public viewing of a prominent citizen in the front parlor of his home. Welty brilliantly sketches the town's citizens from the bevy of Laurel's "bridesmaids" to Miss Adele, the local kindergarten teacher, to Major Bullock, the self-important old family friend, who needs to feel that he is running the show. When Fay's family unexpectedly arrives, the genteel Southern ritual shifts into near-comic mode.
After the burial, Fay decamps with her family for a few days, and Laurel is left with her closest friends and finally only herself. The novel's mode shifts from dialogue and conversation into internal monologue -- from a hectic public scene into quiet contemplation. As Laurel retrieves her mother's papers and reads her journals, she journeys back into her childhood and finally into her brief marriage that ended with the death of her husband in WWII.
Finally as Laurel is preparing to leave to return to her home in Chicago, Fay reappears. "Laurel as not late, not yet, in leaving, but Fay had come early, and in time." There is a final confrontation between the two women and a final confrontation within Laurel's own understanding.
The book is beautifully and economically written -- it carried me away throughout a summer night.
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.
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.
Reviewed in 2007
Eudora Welty’s Pulitzer Prize winning book was a little disappointing to me. I had been looking forward to reading her work for awhile, and I thought this book would be perfect for the Southern Reading Challenge and, of course, the Pulitzer Project. While it does convey a strong sense of the South, I didn’t like Welty’s writing style at all.
The first 2/3 of the book is almost like a play in that it is about 85-90% dialogue. It was extremely difficult to read. The last 1/3 has very little dialogue and was definitely the best part of the book. In this last section, we are able to make sense (a little) of Laurel’s relationship with her parents and her past.
Although I’m glad I read this book for its Southern feel and because I can check off another Pulitzer, I can’t really recommend it unless you are reading it for the same goals.
1972, 180 pp.
It's the story of Laurel McKelva returning to her childhood home for her father Judge McKelva's eye operation and the collision course that results when she has to put up with her self involved, slightly younger than herself stepmother, Fay. This is a great book in the tradition of other Southern novels, without a great deal of character development.
Part I - Laurel McKelva Hand comes from Chicago to care for her elderly father after eye surgery. Judge McKelva subsequently dies and Laurel is left to deal with her young, silly stepmother, Fay. Part I sets the tone for Laurel and Fay's strained relationship.
Part II - Laurel and Fay bring Judge McKelva home for the wake and funeral where Laurel is heartily welcomed and supported by her friends and community. Fay's family comes from Texas and brings out the worst in Fay. Part II illustrates southern charm and manners.
Part III - Laurel has to come to terms with her father's new, young wife. As silly as she is, Laurel's father adored her. Laurel also has to come to terms with the death of her mother ten years prior.
Part IV is all about Laurel's introspective growth and acceptance of the future. The burning of her mother's letters and the letting go of the breadboard are very significant.
The night after the funeral, Laurel finds herself alone in her childhood home. Going through things from her past, she reminisces about her parents, and is able to come to terms with aspects of their relationship and her mother's final illness.
Welty writes her scenes sparingly, allowing characters to speak for themselves. The disparity between the actions of Laurel's stepmother's family and those of the locals is told through dialogue, rather than description, to great effect. One can't help but cringe on Laurel's behalf for what she has to go through before she is free to mourn her father.
It took me most of the story to become interested in the story. one night, I just flat didn't want to read it because it was so boring. The protagonist felt flat and emotionless for so long that I started to wonder if I any conflict really existed at all. Finally, the character starts to express some emotion, starts to show some feeling, and suddenly snaps...but it took so long to get there, even for the short and quick book like this one is.
All that aside, there are perhaps redemptive qualities to this short novel. Welty examines the different experiences and qualities that different people bring to a relationship, and to a marriage, and the effect that those qualities and experiences bequeath to their children.
To be honest, though, this probably is not my type of book. Too much melancholy, dying, and nostalgia and all that looking back mournfully is just too droll for me. Further, not unlike McCormac, if not quite so, Welty is almost painfully sparse in her language, describing just enough to move the story along.
Should you read it? Maybe. If you like Welty.