The people of Mount Salus, Mississippi always felt good about Judge McKelva. He was a quiet, solid reassuring figure, just as a judge should be. Then, ten years after his first wife's death, he marries the frivolous young Wanda Fay. No-one can understand his action, not least his beloved daughter, Laurel, who finds it hard to accept the new bride. It is only some years later, when circumstance brings her back to her childhood home, that Laurel stirs old memories and comes to understand the peculiarities of her upbringing ...
The people of Mount Salus, Mississippi always felt good about Judge McKelva. He was a quiet, solid reassuring figure, just as a judge should be. Then, ten years after his first wife's death, he marries the frivolous young Wanda Fay. No-one can understand his action, not least his beloved daughter, Laurel, who finds it hard to accept the new bride. It is only some years later, when circumstance brings her back to her childhood home, that Laurel stirs old memories and comes to understand the peculiarities of her upbringing, and the true relationship between her parents and herself. The Optimist's Daughter is a reflective, poignant novel of independence and love, for which Eudora Welty, one of America's gretest contemporary Southern writers, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
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When Eudora Welty (1909 -- 2001) began work on the story that became "The Optimist's Daughter" she had difficulty settling upon a title. At different times she considered "Poor Eyes", "An Only Child", "Baltimore" and even "The Flickering Light of Vision" as possible titles. Welty's editor at the "New Yorker" and close friend, William Maxwell urged her to keep her original title. In a letter to Welty of January 29, 1968, Maxwell wrote: "I am still partial to 'The Optimist's Daughter", because, by its ironic tone, it suggests a certain distance between the writer and the woman in the story, and because it also, again by its irony, suggests, matches, somehow, the full horror of the subject matter". Welty followed Maxwell's suggestion and retained her original title. "The Optimist's Daughter" first was published as a story in the "New Yorker" in 1969 and then, in an expanded version, as a novel in 1972. In 1973, Welty received the Pulitzer Prize for the book.
Maxwell was correct about the irony in the title, as between the primary character, Laurel McKelva, and her father, Judge Clint McKelva. But Welty's difficulty in deciding upon a title suggests the multi-faceted character of this dense, closely-written short work. Unusually for Welty, "The Optimist's Daughter" has strong autobiographical elements. She interrupted her work on a longer project in 1966 to write the story following the death of her mother. The character of Becky McKelva, the mother of Laurel who was raised in West Virginia and became Judge McKelva's first wife, seems to have been modeled closely on Welty's mother. And a major theme of "The Optimist's Daughter" is coming to terms with grief and moving on with life.
The story is set primarily in New Orleans and in the small town of Mount Salus, Mississippi in the early 1960's. Short but important scenes take place in West Virginia and Baltimore. When the book begins, Judge McKelva is in New Orleans to consult with his friend, a distinguished opthamologist, about an eye problem. With the Judge is his second wife, Fay, 40, to whom he has been married for about two years and his widowed daughter, Laurel, in her mid-40s. Laurel works as an artistic designer in Chicago and has returned to be with her father when she learns of his illness. After a serious operation on his eye, Judge McKelva ultimately collapses and dies. Fay and Laurel return to Mount Salus for the funeral.
The book moves slowly and deliberately in both the New Orleans and the Mount Salus sections of the story. Laurel is thoughtful and reserved and grieves deeply for her father and for her own life and tragedy. She became a widow when her husband was killed in WW II. Fay, is egotistical, earthy, insensitive, crude, and dishonest. Although she tells Laurel that she has no remaining family, except for a grandfather, her mother and kin from Texas arrive in Mount Salus for the funeral. Welty makes a great deal of the contrast between the brash, vulgar Texas family of Fay, and the reserved ladies of Mount Salus, lifelong friends of the Judge and of Laurel. Welty spends a good deal of space in the description of the events leading up to and including the funeral with much character discussion of Fay and her family, and the Mississippians. The relationship between Fay and the McKelva's reminded me of the relationship between the established and wealthy Ponder family and the trashy Peacock family, also connected by marriage, in an earlier Welty short novel called "The Ponder Heart".
"The Optimist's Daughter" is a highly internalized work. There is little in the way of overt action. The climax of the work occurs when Laurel spends three days largely alone in the old family home following her father's funeral. Surrounded with evidence of her youth, Laurel reflects on her father's life and death, and on the death of her mother, Becky, who had grown up in West Virginia. Becky died after a long, painful, and delirious illness. Laurel also reflects on the brief period of happiness she had enjoyed with her husband, Phil.
The writing is terse, precise, and evocative throughout and uses a great deal of nature symbolism. Welty comes to focus on how Laurel comes to understand her life and her relationship to Fay. Welty does not utterly reject Fay, in spite of all her crudity, but comes to show her with a degree of sympathy. And Laurel comes to an understanding of herself. She is able to move forward with the remainder of her life with a sense of meaning and hope for the future.
"The Optimist's Daughter" explores themes of differences among people, past and present, loss and moving on with a high degree of wisdom, subtlety, and humor. The book consists of only a small number of scenes but they are developed extensively with great artistry. This is an excellent novel that bears close reading by an important American author. I was inspired to read this book by reading a recent collection of correspondence between Welty and William Maxwell, edited by Suzanne Marrs. What There Is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell Maxwell's letter to Welty about the title of the book, discussed early in this review, is drawn from Marrs' edition of the letters.
Jul 21, 2011
With so many uninteresting characters, I could not enjoy this book. Maybe I need to be a southerner. The author's use of colloquialisms threw me on several occasions. I just could not identify with any of her characters. This is the first Welty book I've read, and most likely the last.
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