The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty

 

I didn’t mean to have a week of reading books about the South by women from the South, but it just so happened that I took both Kaye Gibbons and Eudora Welty novels out of the library at the same time, and once I had got the taste of bourbon in my mouth I wanted more. Reading these two women, more than a generation apart, but writing about the same region, was incredibly interesting.  The close, almost stifling, family ties were the same in Sights Unseen as they are in The Optimist’s Daughter, and both novels also feature close knit communities, echoey old houses, eccentric characters and uncomfortable parental relationships. The influence of the culture, traditions and behavioural patterns of the South were unmissable in both, and reading them so close together made me realise just how marked the Southern identity is when compared to reading something set in, say, Boston, or New York. This has really interested me and I can see this leading off into a tangent of reading Southern novels. I already have Ellen Glasgow on my radar; I understand she was the doyenne of Southern fiction in her day, and I am looking forward to discovering her work.

Anyway, I digress. I have been meaning to read Eudora Welty for a long while, and I am very glad I finally did. Like Kaye Gibbons, she writes in a dreamy, haunting, beautifully descriptive prose that takes you to the balmy skys and weathered porches of Mississippi, where Laurel, ‘The Optimist’s Daughter’ of the title, returns after her father, Judge McKelva, unexpectedly dies after a routine operation. Laurel has already lost her husband and mother, and in early middle age, she lives alone in Chicago, many miles from her roots in rural Mississippi. When she comes to see her ailing father before his death in New Orleans, where he has travelled to be operated on by an old family friend, she meets her new stepmother, Fay, whose stupidity and selfishness is offensive and incomprehensible next to the intelligence, beauty and class of Becky, her deceased mother. Judge McKelva, a highly respected and formidable man, well loved by all of the townspeople, is feared to have lost his judgement in recent years, and Laurel can only agree as she watches the vain and spiteful behaviour of her stepmother worsen every day. Judge McKelva never recovers from his surgery, and the grieving Laurel and hysterical Fay, who can only whine over how Judge McKelva’s death has inconvenienced her, travel back to Laurel’s childhood home in the small town of Mount Salus to hold his funeral.

On arrival in Mount Salus, Laurel is treated like the prodigal daughter by her old friends and neighbours, including her bridesmaids and friends of her parents. Wrapped up in their comforting arms and drawn back into the small, loving community she left behind, Laurel finds solace in her grief, and the opportunity to reminisce about her parents and the life they shared together in the house that Fay has already begun to desecrate. In the meantime, the detestable Fay continues to make a show of herself, and when her loud, abrasive and idiotic Texan relatives show up for the Judge’s funeral, her destruction of the sanctity of Laurel’s memories appears complete. However, in her vapidity and mean mindedness, Fay is unable to release that she has no empathy and no ability to truly love, and Laurel’s understanding of the richness of a life filled with love and treasured memories can never be destroyed by her, no matter how hard she might try to take everything Laurel holds dear. Though Laurel chooses to leave behind Mount Salus, she carries everyone in it, and the experiences she had while there, in her heart, and it is this realisation that memories and love are held not in other people or in possessions, but in her own body and soul, that gives Laurel the freedom to move on and begin again.

The Optimist’s Daughter is the sort of novel that people who like plots complain about, because nothing of note really happens. However, in charting the journey from Laurel’s raw grief and anger to emotional freedom and forgiveness, Welty has drawn a remarkably succint and moving portrait of love, memory and grace that gave me much food for thought and truly moved me. Laurel’s exploration of her parents’ relationship, of her mother’s last days, and of the love their house contained, was so powerful, and so vivid. Welty’s haunting scenes of Laurel systematically destroying material objects that belonged to her parents and husband initially shocked me, and I failed to understand the point she was making. However, on re-reading, I came to understand that she was showing how unnecessary things are when all is said and done; for what do they mean when the person who gave them meaning has gone, never to return? Instead, they gather dust in forgotten drawers and cupboards and become nothing to those who find them again. Rather than clutter her life with the relics of a past that is done with, and that has been sullied by Fay’s influence, in destroying what was her anchor to her past, Laurel has been freed to carry her love and memories in her heart rather than in her hands. This gives her the permission she needs to leave Mount Salus behind; with nothing to tie her there anymore, now that Fay is living in her parents’ house, she can live the life of her own choosing.

This whisper-light, brief beauty of a novel is astounding when considering the true weight of the messages it carries. Eudora Welty had a formidable talent, and I was in awe at how magnificently she portrayed the warmth and conviviality of the Southern psyche when compared to the coarse and inconsiderate behaviour of Wanda ‘Fay’ and her family, who strike such a discordant note in the novel that I cringed when they appeared on the page. The world she describes comes alive off the pages, and the delicately, exquisitely drawn character of the tender yet brave Laurel, bowed down but not defeated by the slew of painful losses she experiences, was a true delight to discover. I can’t praise this gem of a novel enough, and Welty is another new discovery I will definitely be exploring more of.

42 comments

  1. I’m so glad you discovered her! And I sighed when I read ’tis whisper-light, brief beauty of a novel…’ what a wonderful way to express it! I met her at a reading when I was in college and I’ve never forgotten it.

    1. Thanks Audrey, you’re very kind! Wow, how amazing that you met her! I would have loved to have met Eudora Welty. I’m hoping to make it to her house one day!

    1. Yes, she writes so beautifully that I can’t see why anyone would dislike immersing themselves in her world. Thank you so much for that recommendation – I’m going to the library yet again tonight (it is on my way home, in my defence!) so I will see if they have it.

  2. You can’t imagine how much I am enjoying your Reading America project. You bring such a fresh perspective to every book and, for those like The Optimist’s Daughter that I’ve read before, I gain an entirely new appreciation for the work. Thanks!

    1. Laura forwarded me a link of your review. I love Southern literature and am so glad you’re enjoying your Reading America project. A lovely review!

      Jill
      The Magic Lasso

      1. Hi Jill, it’s so lovely to see a new face! How nice of you to come on over, and thank you Laura for forwarding on my review! Glad you enjoyed it and that you love Southern literature too – do you have any recommendations?

    2. Oh Laura, how lovely of you! I am so glad you’re enjoying my project and my reviews! It’s very interesting just how different American novels are to English ones – they have a totally alien feel to them, and I am having a lot of fun exploring a new canon and a new set of tradtitions and landscapes.

  3. Your reviews are always so beautifully written. Wouldn’t you like to write them as a career, or do you prefer just enjoying writing them for your, and our, pleasure?
    This sounds like such an interesting book that I’m going to have to add it to my wishlist. I think I’m going to be raging about that step-mother, though!

    1. Oh Penny, you are so kind! I don’t think I would want to write them for a career – it would take the fun out of it! Plus I wouldn’t be good enough…I’m not that clever unfortunately! But I am flattered that you think I could be!
      It is a fantastic book that I’m certain you’ll love. Fay infuriated me, but then that’s the sign of a very well drawn character!

  4. I’m a product of the Midwest, Chicagoland, the Windy City (especially today’s weather, though the term has more to do with our politicians and is another topic altogether), but it is the stories and books from the south that keep me glued to the pages, laughing aloud and sobbing into my teacup. Often without a clear theme or plot but almost always with a lingering taste, like eating a Georgia peach. Your review is wonderful, Rachel, and leaves me wanting to read Eudora Welty anew and your turn of a phrase is simple beautiful –

    “This whisper-light, brief beauty of a novel is astounding when considering the true
    weight of the messages it carries.”

    1. You know what, Penny? I always thought Chicago was called the Windy City because it was windy! You learn something new every day!

      Oh the South is a complete fantasy land for me and I am so enjoying reading about. I’m glad you liked the review and thank you for the compliment, it is most appreciated!

      Also, I haven’t sent out that book yet – but I will, tomorrow, I promise! I’m so sorry for the delay!

  5. Lovely post, but then your descriptions of books are always so well done. I’ve only read one of Welty’s essays (wonderful) but not yet had a chanc to read any of her books. I have several on my book pile, though. Have you seen her remarkable photographs? Well worth seeing if your library has a book of them–you get another picture of the South!

    1. Thank you, Danielle! You are too kind! No I have not seen her photographs – I’d love to! I’m swinging by the library tonight before my class so I shall have a look and see if they have them. I’d love to see the South she set her books in!

  6. No wonder it won the Pulitzer Prize! It sounds fantastic. I’ll get to it eventually as part of my goal to read all of the Pulitzer winners. I, too, very much enjoy your reviews – they are wonderfully written. Thank you!

    1. Well, indeed! What a goal – you’ll have a lot of brilliant books to get through! Thank you, I am just drowning in compliments today! You are very kind!

  7. If you’re looking to stay in the South, try Cold Mountain. I’m really enjoying it, as it is much better then the movie. It’s set in the Applachian mountains in the waning days of the Civil War, and chronicals the return of a soldier home, and the struggles of his love to make it in an increasingly rough world.

    1. Cold Mountain is such a slow moving, hungry journey home and a love that grew stronger for the distances apart and the suffering endured. You are so right, Val, it is much better than the movie and it haunts me still and the beautiful scenes (and some not so) still play in my mind.

  8. Rachel, I am so pleased that you have discovered Welty. I actually had Optomists Daughter in the bag o’ books for you, but I took it out since I know how swamped you are with American books. She is one of my favorite writers and one of my favorite book mini-events is Welty-related. I had finished reading through her work shortly before my husband and I took a trip to England. One of the places we stayed while touring the countryside was the incredible Buckland Manor just outside of Broadway. We were resting in our comfy very British perfect room overlooking acres of lawn and gardens and highland cattle whose horns had been polished personally by the host, when a show came on the BBC all about Eudora Welty, that most American writer. There she was in her comfortable yet modest Mississippi in which she lived her entire life. She was talking about everything from her childhood memories to her writing process and as I watched I saw on her childhood bookcases a set of books that my mother had as a child and which she passed on to me. Imagine – Eudora and her greatest fan sharing an early reading experience. Those books were my constant companions and I still have them. They introduced us and countless other children to literature from Homer to Alcott to Stevenson and Dickens. Some of us became great witers and others great readers. I can’t wait for you to read Welty’s short stories. Brilliant!!

    1. I didn’t know you were such a big fan of Welty, Ellen! How sweet you are to have already bagged it up! (Polished horns?! Bizzare!) How wonderful about the documentary and the books! What serendipity! I wonder whether this documentary is available anywhere, because it sounds fantastic. You and Eudora clearly shared the same tastes – quite a claim to literary fame!

  9. ’tis whisper-light, brief beauty of a novel…

    What a beautiful phrase.

    Great review and I agree; sometimes the best books are the ones where not much really happens.

    PB

    1. Thank you, PB! I’m glad you enjoyed this, and that you are with me on the no plot novels. Sometimes character development and insight into life and the universe are plot enough, and it saddens me when people can’t see that.

      1. I think that is my biggest issue with Historical novels – most of them offer insight into events or the time period, perhaps a few of the really good ones offer insight into a historical character. But I read because I want insight into that which makes us human – that personal spark and connection.

    2. I couldn’t agree more. I also find Historical novels tend to be based on stereotypes, which irritates me no end. Not everyone in Victorian times was repressed or prone to fainting fits!

  10. This was a wonderful book that helped me get perspective on personal experience. Not that I compare the two, but just thought of “A Christmas Memory” (Truman Capote) – have you read this? Another beautiful and sad little Southern tale (movie’s good too!).

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed this too, Kim, and that it helped you. I think books can be so powerful in opening up personal experiences and helping us make sense of them when read at just the right time in our lives. No I haven’t read that story – but I will seek it out now you have recommended it, thank you!

  11. I’ve never read anything by Welty, but Southern novels aren’t really my big thing. Have you ever seen Show Boat? There are two versions, but the old one with Paul Robeson is the one you want – such a ridiculous film in a lot of ways, but I kinda love it anyway.

  12. Oh, a short but perfect book is such a rare thing. I have just added it to my Amazon wishlist – it tells me that it won the Pulitzer prize too, interesting!
    I love the picture you have chosen of the porch – so evocative of a particular type of North American home. I would love to have a porch to read on.

    1. Isn’t it just, Jane? I couldn’t agree more. I hope you get it from your wishlist soon, as I’m sure you’d like it very much.
      Oh my goodness, it’s my dream to have a porch, with a rocking chair. I would sit there all day long and stare at everyone who walked by.

  13. I discovered Welty last year and loved her short stories and the novel Losing Battles. I haven’t read The Optimist’s Daughter but after your review I’ll be picking it up. I particularly like her abrupt-ending style, especially in the short stories.

    1. Welty is everywhere here – she seems to be very popular and a ‘cult’ choice which is interesting. I want to read Losing Battles so I’m, glad to see you liked it! I’m sure you’d enjoy The Optimist’s Daughter. So nice to hear from you Nadia! Hope all is well at the V&A.

      1. It’s all good! Wish you were here to see Diaghilev and Shadowcatchers. I’m really enjoying reading your book reviews and your impressions of NYC!

  14. The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery has a wonderful portrait of Eudora Welty. I saw it years ago in an exhibit of portraits of American women. Although there were many fine portraits of such women as Jacquelline Kennedy Onassis and Ethel Merman, what I remember most vividly are Miss Welty’s blue eyes and translucent skin.

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