The Optimist's Daughter

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Optimist's Daughter
by Eudora Welty
★★★★

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."

5 comments:

JoAnn said...

Welty's writing is beautiful! I've read a few of her stories, but this is the only novel. Delta Wedding will be next.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

JoAnn - Delta Wedding is the next one I was looking at too!

Trish said...

Without getting up to look, I'm not sure if I have this one on my shelf or not. I do have a couple of collections of her short stories and I really enjoy them.

Susan Bybee said...

This is on my Pulitzer shelf, but I haven't read it yet. Your review makes me want to move it to the top of my TBR pile.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Bybee - Enjoy!