The optimist's daughter

by Eudora Welty

Paperback, 1990

Status

Available

Genres

Publication

New York : Vintage International, 1990.

Description

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.

Media reviews

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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member lauralkeet
The Optimist's Daughter won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973, and is a short but stunning work. Set primarily in Mississippi, it's the story of Laurel McKelva Hand, currently living in Chicago, visiting the South where her father is failing. Judge McKelva was a pillar of his community. After the death of his first wife (Laurel's mother), he remarried a woman younger than Laurel herself. Welty, through small but significant descriptions of second wife Fay, makes the reader despise her in the first few pages. She is introduced on page 1 when Fay, Laurel, and the Judge are meeting with a doctor about the Judge's condition: "Fay, small and pale in her dress with the gold buttons, was tapping her sandaled foot." And two pages later, as the Judge is describing his medical problem: "Fay laughed -- a single, high note, as derisive as a jay's."

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.
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LibraryThing member whitewavedarling
A beautiful and heartbreaking and hopeful surprise, this little book is reminiscent of Mark Twain in voice and subject, though lighter in tone--a touch of Flannery O'Connor, minus the violence. The humor here, combined with the emotion, make for a surprisingly touching book, and one which might be read on a quiet day for a single afternoon's vacation. It is a quick book, but not one to be forgotten or left aside in the past. Highly recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member jnwelch
“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.”

“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, she eventually makes the bad mistake of shaking him . Fay already is trying to erase any memory of Becky, the Judge's deceased first wife, and now she and Laurel go to battle.

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.
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LibraryThing member bookworm12
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."
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LibraryThing member irishwasherwoman
I listened to this in the car and Miss Welty, reading her own work, was a wonderful travelling companion. I felt like she was sitting right beside me telling me the goings-on in Mount Salus with her wonderful Lou Holtz-like lisp and clicking teeth. I was always ready to say, "And then what happened?" However, this book goes far beyond the telling of a good story. I see in it the struggle between the common and the elite, the suffocating closeness of small town life, and the stranglehold that grief can have. While at times I did feel that it drew a bit too much on Southern stereotypes, the rich dialoge is so enhanced by Miss Welty's descriptions, giving wonderful support to each scene. There were times when I just said, "Wow - what a great phrase" or simply found myself rewinding sections just to luxuriate in her reading. I will be adding a paper copy of this to my library just so I can thumb through it from time to time and visit with a good friend. A very special read.… (more)
LibraryThing member ccayne
The book hinges on the death of Judge. McKelva, Laurel's father, but it's really about the living - his survivors, Laurel and his second wife, Fay. Becky, Laurel's mother and dead for 10 years or more also plays a role. To me, the struggle is between the past and present - living, sensuality, pleasure vs. honoring the dead. Fay is totally out of the social milieu of the McKelva's - she is emotional, sensual and in the eyes of polite Mississippi society, crude. But, it seems that Judge McKelva loved her - they acted like newlyweds and he embrace her vitality much to the chagrin of his daughter and neighbors. She didn't really care whether or not they accepted her. His death immediately followed Fay's grabbing him in the hospital - was she trying to shake him into life or death. Laurel is a widow and mourns all those who went before her, her husband, mother and now father. She has not remarried and seems to live a quiet reserved life. Though provoking and well done.… (more)
LibraryThing member dreamingtereza
"Memory lived not in initial possession but in the freed hands, pardoned and freed, and in the heart that can empty but fill again, in the patterns restored by 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.… (more)
LibraryThing member janeajones
Like Delta Wedding, The Optimist's Daughter evokes a highly detailed sense of time and space during a momentous, but ordinary, life event; in this case, a funeral in a small Mississippi town in the 1950s. Judge McKelva has died in New Orleans after a cataract operation (no simple procedure as it is today -- at that time a cataract patient had to remain immobilized for days, if not weeks, while the eye healed), and his young wife, Fay, and widowed daughter, Laurel, are left to bring the body home to Mount Salus and arrange the funeral.

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.
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LibraryThing member weird_O
Laurel McKelva Hood travels from her life in Chicago to her childhood home in Mississippi to assist her father, a retired judge, deal with transitions. Clint McKelva has vision difficulty and he seems to be acting somewhat older than he is. [Damn! And he's younger than I am.] A decade or so back, his wife Becky, Laurel's mother, died. Just a year or two ago, he met and abruptly married Kay, a woman younger than his daughter.

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.

Clint dies.

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.
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LibraryThing member laytonwoman3rd
A one-sitting read with perfect characterizations and a twist on Faulkner's "The past is never dead..." Welty says the past is "impervious, and can never be awakened" but that memory "can be hurt, time and again". Somehow, I think they are both right. But I would have taken the bread board.
Reviewed in 2007… (more)
LibraryThing member gwendolyndawson
This is a very tightly written story (almost a novella) about a daughter's coping with the death of her father. The plot involves an obnoxious second wife. There is plent of good dialog and evocative writing about the South.
LibraryThing member whirled
It is easy to see why The Optimist's Daughter occupies such high standing in the canon of Southern fiction. With sparse and at times beautiful prose, Eudora Welty manages to commuicate much in a very slim volume. However, this economical style of storytelling reduces some of the characters - particularly the unbearably shrill Fay - to a cartoonish level. A good but not great American novel.… (more)
LibraryThing member 1morechapter
Memory lived not in initial possession but in the freed hands, pardoned and freed, and in the heart that can empty but fill again, in the patterns restored by dreams.

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.
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LibraryThing member jerrynewman
My first Eudora Welty novel Interesting but not comfortable. In this novel, she seems to imply constantly, meaning one has to work to understand. I've worked to understand plenty in other books (I love Faulkner, and yes, have finished Ulysses.) But here I work and still am unsettled. Also, not exactly a pleasant story! Some good characterizations and character contrasts.… (more)
LibraryThing member jonesli
The Optimist's Daughter is a very quick, but very good book by Eudora Welty. What I like so much about her is that she can say a lot without hitting you over the head with it.

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.… (more)
LibraryThing member Michael.Xolotl
Extremely realistic and depressing. Bird trapped in the house is a bit too obviously symbolic. More admirable than likable. Fay is a common sight in the real world, at least in the south, but likely everywhere I'm sure.
LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
Southern story broken into four distinct sections.
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.
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LibraryThing member mzonderm
This is a very straightforward book. When Laurel's father dies, she must deal not only with her own grief but that of her friends and neighbors (her father was a well-loved judge in their small town). On top of that, she also has to deal with the histrionics of her stepmother, a woman younger than herself, who does not react in a way that Laurel finds seemly.

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.
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LibraryThing member librarianbryan
This started as a comedy of Old South manners but by the second half it had changed into something entirely different. It plunges the depths of how we become who we are. I would have liked it even more if the character that we were plunging into was more like myself, but I have to acknowledge innumerable numinous interpretations that is hallmark of all great literature. For a book were nothing really happens my book club went ape shit.… (more)
LibraryThing member AdonisGuilfoyle
I really enjoy Southern fiction, which for me is a blend of evocative scenery, nostalgic small town communities and universal emotions. This is my first taste of Eudora Welty's writing, but 'The Optimist's Daughter' is the perfect introduction - concise, lyrical and poignant. Laurel Hand returns to her home town of Mount Salus, Mississippi, to be with her remarried father when he goes into hospital for an operation. She has to deal with her common stepmother, who has escaped her own sprawling family to lay claim to Laurel's family home, as well as her old friends and neighbours, and the memories and guilt of her mother's death. Recently widowed herself, Laurel has to break free of the past and decide to live for herself. Not a lot happens in terms of plot, but the depth of history and feeling is beautifully described, like Laurel's memory of hearing her parents read aloud to each other: 'She cared for her own books, but she cared more for theirs, which meant their voices. ... 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'. The autobiographical basis for this neat tale adds heartfelt compassion to a metaphor of grief and memory, and I will definitely be reading more by the author.… (more)
LibraryThing member publiusdb
776624 Father dies after surgery. Much younger second wife throws a scene. Daughter of first wife mourns...while resenting younger step-mother?

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.
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LibraryThing member CherieDooryard
My sister insisted I read this because I'd never read any Eudora Welty. I've always meant to, so I agreed. It was a fine book. My sister claims she reads this over and over again. I will not be doing that.
LibraryThing member nancenwv
I found the phrasing and dialog very awkward and agree with the previous reviewer that the characters felt flat. The build up of what had happened with Laurel's parents just didn't resonate for me or make sense.
LibraryThing member FAR2MANYBOOKS
Three and a half stars. I guess I will steal a fellow Goodreads member's words because they perfectly sum up this book: "the atmosphere and feelings Welty creates with her words are more the plot than any event or character".

LibraryThing member Lisa.Johnson.James
I chose this book of Welty's first from the list because it was the thinnest :) Not a good way to choose books, I know, & I was told it might not be easily understood because some of the references were a little obscure. Well, I was captivated by this story of family, pain, loss, & dealing with the aftermath of it all right from the first page. In reading this, there were times I caught glimpses of my own family & past, & sometimes they were all as foreign to me as oceans away. Parts of it I cringed though in embarrassment for Laurel, but like a train wreck, I couldn't look away. Overall, I was very impressed by this book, & since there are other stories by the same author on my challenge list, I'm finding myself looking forward to reading them.… (more)

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