REVIEW: The Optimist’s Daughter

Having cheated slightly and read a couple of children’s books this week (Stairway to Doom by Robert Quackenbush and Michael Rosen’s A to Z of children’s poetry by various authors), I decided to tackle something a little more heavyweight and chose 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty.

This book was first published as a short story in 1969 in the New Yorker and then Welty extended it to become the novel we know now in 1972. It was her sixth (five adult novels and one for children) and final novel and she also published many collections of short stories.

Eudora Welty (1909 – 2001) is hailed as one of the best in contemporary American literature. Like her contemporary William Faulkner, she was a Southern writer, the life and times of the Deep South being embedded in her literature.

In The Optimist’s Daughter, Welty also incorporated some autobiographical details, though she was not known to be an autobiographical writer.

The book opens as Laurel Hand flies from Chicago to New Orleans to be with her father, a well-respected judge, as he undergoes an operation for a detached retina. He is accompanied by his second and much younger wife Wanda Fay and the two women do not get on. Laurel still mourns the loss of her mother Becky, who died more than a decade earlier, as well as her husband Phil, who enlisted in the Navy and was killed in the Second World War.

As Laurel’s father Judge McKelva, fails to recover from his operation and dies, their small Mississippi town embraces Laurel to bid the judge a final farewell in true Southern style, brilliantly brought to life in these pages.

The book follows Laurel’s journey through her memories of love and loss until she comes to an understanding of the relationships between her and her parents and her and her husband.

Once again, this isn’t an unputdownable page-turner, but an evocative and poignant story which deserves to be savoured. The prose is beautiful, lyrical, full of imagery and tenderness.

A theme of vision and blindness run through the novel, Welty equating failing sight with an inability to understand but this is a book about family, relationships, love and grief.

It’s not a long book, it runs to 180 pages, and it’s not miserable, in fact I found it quite uplifting. It is a thought-provoking read and one I am glad I undertook.

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