Thursday, June 22, 2023

The Optimist's Daughter: Eudora Welty

I read The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty for a Classics Club Spin and I am a bit late reviewing it. The book is very short, 180 pages in the edition I read. It was published in 1972 and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1973. Welty was a well-known author of Southern fiction but she only wrote five novels, between 1946 and 1972.

Laurel McKelva Hand goes to New Orleans with her father, Judge McKelva, and his second wife, Fay, to visit the Judge's eye doctor. The judge is in his early seventies and the retina in one eye has slipped.  As a result of surgery, he is required to lie in bed for weeks and not move his head. As he lies there his condition degenerates. When he dies, Laurel returns to her hometown for the funeral.

This book was divided into four sections. The first section describes Judge McKelva's illness and death in a hospital in New Orleans, and the support that is provided by Laurel, his daughter, and Fay, his second wife, who is younger than Laurel. Fay is shallow and self-centered; she doesn't even attempt to hide her irritation because her first visit to New Orleans with the Judge has to be spent sitting in a hospital, when she could be going to Mardi Gras activities. 

The second section recounts the return to Laurel's hometown: meetings with her old friends; the visitation at the house; the funeral. Fay's family comes to support her, but she is furious when they show up. She had told Laurel that she had no family; maybe she was ashamed of them, or thought she had risen above them.

Probably the best thing about this book is the depiction of the visitation in the home, with dishes brought in from neighbors, and remembrances of the judge, although I found it painful rather than humorous. 

Fay inherits the Judge's estate, and she will now own the family home that Laurel grew up in. Fay returns to her hometown in Texas for a few days and Laurel agrees to be out of her former home before Fay returns.  Even though Laurel tries, they can find no common ground between them. Fay knows that Laurel looks down on her and resents her relationship with the Judge. 

In the third section, Laurel goes through the house, looking for mementos, things that belonged to her mother. She looks backs on trips she took to visit her mother's family in West Virginia. The fourth section is very brief. It focuses on her memories of losing her husband during World War II, not very long after they were married. 

My Thoughts:

In this review I have covered more of the plot than I usually do, and that is partially because I cannot really explain what I don't like about the book. For me, it did not have depth and it did not seem to go anywhere in the first two-thirds of the book. I had too many unanswered questions, and I did not want to fill in the blanks. 

The last sections were the best part of the book. I preferred Laurel's memories of her past and her attempts to come to terms with the loss of her parents and her husband to the first two sections. Others have had the opposite reaction to the book. They enjoyed the contentious relationship between Laurel and Fay, but found Laurel's musings over her past and coming to terms with her loss less interesting. 

The Optimist's Daughter was first published as a long story in The New Yorker in March 1969. Later it was revised and published in book form. Possibly that was why the book seemed to have a split personality, funny at times, sad at times, but not doing either very well. I haven't read the first version.

Many readers have loved this book. Many reviewers include their own experiences with losing their parents and other family members in their reviews. I think it is a book well worth reading, especially since it is a brief read. Some of the writing is beautiful. I just did not care for the book as a whole.


Publisher:   Vintage International, 1990 (orig. pub. 1972)
Length:       180 pages
Format:       Trade paperback
Setting:       USA; New Orleans; Mount Salus, Mississippi
Genre:        Fiction
Source:      On my TBR since May 2019.


Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Tracy, very good review and I recently read a short story by Eudora Welty The Worn Path. It's considered one of her best but I didn't get from it what others did. Reading is subjective of course but many books labeled classics from the 19th and early 20th century never seem to get reevaluated. Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara for example made the Modern Library's List of 100 great novels of the 20th century. I read it and I don't think it belongs on that list and other really fine novels got bumped.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I remember greatly preferring her short stories to the novels although I read them all. Especially liked WHY I LIVED AT THE PO. And her memoir ONE WRITER"S BEGINNING is good. Also the letters between her and Ross McDonald, which were almost romantic.

Lark said...

Eudora Welty is one of those authors I've been meaning to read for years now, but maybe I should start with one of the other books first before reading this one. Although the short length of this one is a draw. ;D

TracyK said...

Kathy, I was recently reading about Eudora Welty and I did see that "The Worn Path" was a recommended story. So far I have not enjoyed the few short stories I have read by her. But she wrote short stories over many years, so I think I need to sample more stories from different periods in her life.

TracyK said...

Patti, I have read that many readers prefer her short stories over the novels. I will try more of both. I did not enjoy the first few stories I read by Welty, but there are many more to try. And I will try other novels.

Thanks for the other suggestions. I agree that the letters between Welty and Macdonald border on romantic. Based on his biography by Tom Nolan there was both attraction and admiration between them. I have not finished reading the letters but I will do that. They are a very good read.

TracyK said...

You might love this book, Lark, and it is short and not hard to read. I just expected so much more out of it. Of her five novels it was the last one, but I don't know much about the earlier novels.

I am now read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, also set in the deep South, and liking that much better.

Emma at Words And Peace / France Book Tours said...

Too bad it didn't work for you, hopefully your next spin will be better for you - one of my favorite books

TracyK said...

Thanks, Emma. I am glad I read The Optimist's Daughter even if I did not like it that much.

I am currently reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and I am about 50 pages from the end. I am sure I will finish it tonight.

Margot Kinberg said...

Sorry it took me a few days to get to this, Tracy! I'm glad you highlighted this one. I've always thought Welty depicted family dynamics well. And scenes like people bringing food, a church social, or other gatherings really show the social interactions and customs, too. I've found that with Welty, things are sometimes more subtle, and the pace isn't always fast, but the stories can be vivid.

Sam said...

I agree with most everything that's already been said in the comments. I do prefer the short stories to the novels, but my favorite is her memoir "One Writer's Beginning." For whatever reason, I never seem to have an easy time with Welty novels, maybe because my mind tends to drift sometimes even before I realize what's happening while I'm reading them.

TracyK said...

Margot, This is definitely about family dynamics and I agree it is a good portrayal. Somehow I just could not get into the story. I did like the third and fourth parts better when Laurel was reminiscing, mostly alone. I experienced one visitation / funeral in rural Alabama similar to the one in this novel when I was around 20. I remember it vividly, and this writer did it well.

TracyK said...

Sam, I will be reading more of the short stories by Welty, and also will find a copy of One Writer's Beginnings. I also want to read more of her novels, and I will know more what to expect.