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The Optimist's Daughter [Paperback]

Eudora Welty
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Aug. 11 1990 Vintage International
This story of a young woman's confrontation with death and her past is a poetic study of human relations.

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The Optimist's Daughter is a compact and inward-looking little novel, a Pulitzer Prize winner that's slight of page yet big of heart. The optimist in question is 71-year-old Judge McKelva, who has come to a New Orleans hospital from Mount Salus, Mississippi, complaining of a "disturbance" in his vision. To his daughter, Laurel, it's as rare for him to admit "self-concern" as it is for him to be sick, and she immediately flies down from Chicago to be by his side. The subsequent operation on the judge's eye goes well, but the recovery does not. He lies still with both eyes heavily bandaged, growing ever more passive until finally--with some help from the shockingly vulgar Fay, his wife of two years--he simply dies. Together Fay and Laurel travel to Mount Salus to bury him, and the novel begins the inward spiral that leads Laurel to the moment when "all she had found had found her," when the "deepest spring in her heart had uncovered itself" and begins to flow again.

Not much actually happens in the rest of the book--Fay's low-rent relatives arrive for the funeral, a bird flies down the chimney and is trapped in the hall--and yet Welty manages to compress the richness of an entire life within its pages. This is a world, after all, in which a set of complex relationships can be conveyed by the phrase "I know his whole family" or by the criticism "When he brought her here to your house, she had very little idea of how to separate an egg." Does such a place exist anymore? It is vanishing even from this novel, and the personification of its vanishing is none other than Fay--petulant, graceless, childish, with neither the passion nor the imagination to love. Welty expends a lot of vindictive energy on Fay and her kin, who must be the most small-minded, mean-mouthed clan since the Snopeses hit Frenchman's Bend. There's more than just class snobbery at work here (though that surely comes into it too). As Welty sees it, they are a special historical tribe who exult in grieving because they have come to be good at it, and who seethe with resentment from the day they are born. They have come "out of all times of trouble, past or future--the great, interrelated family of those who never know the meaning of what has happened to them."

Fay belongs to the future, as she makes clear; it's Laurel who belongs to the past--Welty's own chosen territory. In her fine memoir, One Writer's Beginnings, Welty described the way art could shine a light back "as when your train makes a curve, showing that there has been a mountain of meaning rising behind you on the way you've come." Here, in one of her most autobiographical works, the past joins seamlessly with the present in a masterful evocation of grief, memory, loss, and love. Beautifully written, moving but never mawkish, The Optimist's Daughter is Eudora Welty's greatest achievement--which is high praise indeed. --Mary Park

Review

Her last, most autobiographical, and finest novel Independent A gentle, tender work, bright with Welty's sharp humour and pioneer sense of place. Guardian --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Grief and love Feb. 4 2008
By E. A Solinas HALL OF FAME TOP 10 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
Like love, grief is ultimately something that we must all go through alone. There can be people who help, but our emotional journeys are ours alone.

And that is the heart of "The Optimist's Daughter," a dark, quiet little novel set in the mid-20th century South. Eudora Welty explores a difficult, emotionally wringing topic -- one woman losing the last loved one she had, and the struggle to come to terms with the many people she's lost.

Elderly but healthy Judge McKelva goes in for an eye operation, but seems strangely lethargic afterwards. His daughter Laurel -- who has been away for several years -- is concerned as her father continues to decline, especially since his flaky second wife Fay is treating him badly, and even has to be physically restrained by a nurse. Then the judge dies.

And Laurel finds herself in her old family home, trying to deal with Fay, her weird family, and the many well-meaning-but-dense friends that McKelva had over the years. But when the house is empty and she is alone, Laurel looks back on her life -- her all-too-brief marriage to a loving man, her mother's horrible death, and her father's remarriage -- and learns how to feel again.

Few books that I've read really handle the subject of grief -- usually people hug, cry, and get over it except for a few pages every now and then, when there is a mention of the Dearly Departed.

But not many authors can really get to the wrenching, lonely core of grief and loss, and how it can set us free, or lock our emotions and throw away the key. And that is basically what "The Optimist's Daughter" is all about -- McKelva's illness and death are a prelude to Laurel's soul-searching, and the exploration of how she handles her grief.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Stacks its deck too unfairly Dec 19 2003
Format:Paperback
Welty's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is largely told in the third person through the observations of its heroine, Laurel McKelva Hand, the daughter of a prominent and wealthy smalltown Mississippi judge who comes to New Orleans to help her father who must see a doctor for an eye affliction. On hand is the judge's second wife, the silly and vulgar Fay, whom Laurel and the doctor basically ignore. When the father unexpectedly dies, Laurel (who is older than Fay) must return to the smalltown with her stepmother for his funeral.
The reasons for Welty's popularity with THE NEW YORKER editorial board are much in evidence: the story is told subtly and in small pieces, and accrues a remarkable level of hospital and genteel smalltown detail as it proceeds. Its measured rhythms are the best thing this novel has going for it. Unfortunately, it seems to proceed too much along the lines of a contest between discreet Southern gentility and refinement (embodied in the quiet and grieiving Laurel) and no-'count Southern lower-class vulgarity (championed by Fay and her obnoxious Texas relatives). Although Laurel comes to realize why her father's late-life optimism explains why he married Fay, Welty doesn't really allow Fay any sort of appeal to the reader at all, and so you finish the novel thinking how much *nicer* everything would have been had the judge never married her. (At least Tennessee Williams allowed Stanley Kowalski animal magnetism.) The novel seems too much on the side of delicacy , especially given that Welty's own fine feelings are so manifest in her method of telling of the story--though paradoxically some overobvious symbols (a carved boat, a breadboard, the judge's degenerating eye) weigh things down a bit much. The work is most interesting at the end, when Laurel must confront some truths about her real mother's final illness which complicate the overly schematic family alignments in some welcome ways.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Simple and Quiet May 28 2003
By Emily
Format:Paperback
Laurel is a quiet character; though she is the center of the book, she rarely speaks. Welty captures Laurel's greif at the death of her father with all of the accompanying conflicting emotions.
Laurel's character was developed largely from the tangible details about the way she conducted herself with her father, mother, Fay, and the people from her town, as well as descriptions of her memories. She was a complete character through her interactions with the other characters and her memories which were brought on through her interaction with her surroundings. And though Fay seemed a little bit one-dimensional, she was by no means evil--there are stupid people in the world :)
Contrary to some of the other reviewers I felt like the simplicity and grace of Welty's prose deserved the Pulitzer Prize.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Quietly Epiphanic April 9 2003
Format:Hardcover
If you have long wondered what the fuss about Eudora Welty is all about, read THE OPTIMIST'S DAUGHTER, the 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winner for fiction. This is no peripheral achievement but the heart of the Welty experience. As you begin reading it, you would describe it as a spare, quiet character study. By the time you finish it--the prose is sleek and straightforward, you glide through it--you are flipping back, realizing the profundities it has kicked up all the way through, hoping you did not miss anything. It is the story of Laurel McKelva Hand, fortysomething widow, who has flown back to the south from her career life in Chicago to be at her father's side as he copes with a medical emergency. It is obvious that she has come because the trophy wife/stepmother, Fay, is not considered up to the task by anyone else's standards. The first part of the novel ends with the judge's death; the second part moves back into the Mississippi house where Laurel grew up for her father's funeral. Here Welty introduces the town folk who hold her father and late mother in high esteem, who regard Fay as a white trash outsider nuisance. Fay reminds everyone that she gets all the property, everything they all view as belonging to the deceased parents and the grown daughter. The first two parts could easily translate to the screen or stage; the last two would be more difficult because Welty turns inward, helping Laurel sort out memory, loss, and what it spells for her future. The power of the book lies in how it twists and turns through the four characters--Laurel, her parents, and Fay--moving around the tensions between them until a full sense of the truth is located. What you first know about Laurel and Fay will be challenged. Neither is simple, nor is the story.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars The optimists Daughter
I thought this book was well written but missing some elements. When the book first started out it was very confusing. I wasn't sure what was going on or who the characters were. Read more
Published on Oct. 28 2002
4.0 out of 5 stars Especially meaningful to people of a "certain age."
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1973, this moving study of memory and the progression of generations is still vibrant and relevant thirty years later. Read more
Published on Aug. 28 2002 by Mary Whipple
5.0 out of 5 stars The finest in Southern melancholy
I'm not a big fan of Southern fiction in general, but this short novel is definitely a brilliant achievement. Read more
Published on May 24 2002 by David A. Bede
5.0 out of 5 stars A Work Designed To Please The Mature Mind
At the time of her death, Eudora Welty of Mississippi was generally considered America's greatest living author. Read more
Published on May 14 2002 by Gary F. Taylor
4.0 out of 5 stars A haunting novella that lingers in the reader's mind
This book is the conclusion of Welty's thematic trilogy of Southern family life: while "Delta Wedding" concerns a family gathering for a marriage ceremony and "Losing Battles"... Read more
Published on May 5 2002 by D. Cloyce Smith
2.0 out of 5 stars Much ado about_______?
I've always wanted to read a Welty book and I picked this one. Unfortunately, because now, I don't think I'll try another. Read more
Published on March 20 2002 by S. Grgas
5.0 out of 5 stars Perspective on confluence
I believe Eudora Welty chose the story she tells in "The Optimist's Daughter" to present her own point of view (attitude) regarding the inevitable results of the... Read more
Published on March 2 2002 by M. Roussin
4.0 out of 5 stars An interesting read
This story is basically about a woman named Laurel who makes some realizations about her family and herself. Read more
Published on Nov. 22 2001 by Robert Ortiz
1.0 out of 5 stars How did this win the Pulitzer?
Thankfully, this was a novella or I would have never finished it. The story is pointless. The protagonist is a weak, spineless woman who allows herself to be abused by her father's... Read more
Published on Aug. 23 2001 by T. zisis
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