Monday, 3 August 2009

The Optimist's Daughter

Synopsis (from back cover): 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.

Have you ever read a book where your preconceived notions are something different? From its cover (a photograph of the author as a young girl) and from the above description I felt somewhat misled by the plot description for The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty. Both suggest that Laurel is a child when her mother, Becky, dies and then ten years later her father marries Fay and she is perhaps then entering adolescence and finds a new stepmother difficult to accept. Then "some years later" Laurel returns to her childhood home as an adult. However, this is not the case; instead it is only the year before the novel's setting -when Judge McKelva is seventy, his daughter forty, and Fay younger than that- when the Judge and his new wife marry and a year later when Laurel travels to New Orleans to assist her father post-operation for a detached retina and a few weeks later travels to her childhood home in Mount Sulas, Mississippi, for his funeral following his decline and counting down to death.

How peculiar that such a mistake -sheer laziness, in my opinion- would be made in the simple description of the novel; it is not an egregious error, by any means, nor did it affect my enjoyment of the novel but its inaccuracy is frustrating. I wanted to point his out before reviewing the novel as it bothered me.

Anyway, Laurel is a middle-aged women who is a designer in Chicago; her and Fay do not know each other, let alone like one another. Fay is obnoxious and comes across as an immature, spoiled child and Laurel isn't characterised as anything really... she comes across as a little cold but I think it is to convey the numbness of grief; she is, after all, still grieving for her mother as well as now her father. The strength of Welty's description also lies in the fringe characters, Fay's family -who are not as despicable as she is- and the residents of Mount Sulas, who rally around Laurel. Apparently this is the most autobiographical of Welty's novels and her observations of the townspeople are wittily realised but Fay is truly her tour de force.

I read this both because it was a Pulitzer winner, the first read since I announced my challenge, and because it is a Virago Modern Classic and the plot appealed to me; with so many challenges on the go just now I am trying to read books that tick a few boxes as opposed to just a book that I would love to read (this is only whilst I'm working my way the Booker longlist). I wasn't disappointed as it is a great book and a short read. I think perhaps that it is one that would bear re-reading once I am older -perhaps Laurel's age- and appreciative of the pain of grief and power of memory.

As it is, without much identification with the plot I appreciated the novel greatly for its brevity and economy of writing, the beauty of that writing, and its poignancy in tone. There are some wonderfully written passages and I would recommend this novel especially to those who simply love good writing.

The train gathered speed as swiftly as it had brought itself to a halt. It went out of sight while the wagon, loaded with thelong box now, and attended by a stranger in a business suit, was wheeled slowly back along the platform and steered to where a hearse, backed in among the cars, stood with its door wide.

In the lateness of the night, their two voices reading to each other where she could hear them, never letting a silence divide or interrupt them, combined into one unceasing voice and wrapped her around as she listened, as still as if she were asleep. 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.

But there was nothing of her mother here for Fay to find, or for herself to retrieve. The only traces there were of anybody were the drops of nail varnish. Laurel studiously went on work on them; she lifted them from the surface of the desk and rubbed it afterwards with wax until nothing was left to show of them, either.



13 comments:

verity said...

Very interested to read this, as obviously this is a book that I will need to read! I don't seem to have a copy yet either. I really like the sound of it so may have to come across it sooner rather than later. I do agree with you though that blurbs on the back aren't always hugely reflective of what's between the covers - I suppose another case of "don't judge a book by its cover"...

Paperback Reader said...

Yes, Verity, very much a case of "don't judge a book by its over!"
I look forward to your thoughts when you find a copy and read it.
The great thing about your challenge is that there is a diversity in the VMC list, which may not be apparent at first. I think this is the only Pulitzer Prize winner that is also a VMC.

Laura [What I Like] said...

I do appreciate brevity...I often find superfluous language to be utterly infuriating. I've always thought that was why I was so drawn to Hemingway...

Paperback Reader said...

Hi Laura, thanks for commenting! Eudora Welty is certainly capable of expressing herself succinctly so I imagine you would enjoy her work.

savidgereads said...

Isnt it annoying when books have misleading covers or what I think is a worse offender... misleading blurns that infuriates me to the max!

Vintage Reading said...

Good review. I really must read Eudora Welty. I believe she has written some short stories as well as novels.

Vintage Reading said...

Good review. I really must read Eudora Welty. I believe she has written some short stories as well as novels.

Paperback Reader said...

Simon, definitely infuriating! It's not that I don't like surprises but that I don't like being misled.

Thanks, vintage reading. She has indeed written short stories and I remember the ones I have read being very good but then I also mix up her and Flannery O'Connor's stories.

claire said...

I thought I hadn't read this book thoroughly because I remember being at the library almost everyday, waiting for my two older sons from school, and I was with my little baby who kept fussing, so I would pick this book up every time and read like two or three pages per day. So most of my reading was distracted. However, upon reading your review I realize I have read it through, I was just not paying too much attention to it.

I agree about the writing, it was very nice. The cover of the one I read was more fitting to the story. I was in fact surprised at the cover you have, why they would put that on there.

Nymeth said...

Though I very much enjoyed this book, especially the characterization and the writing, like you I felt that I'd probably get more out of it later in life.

Paperback Reader said...

Claire, it did become quite deep towards the end and I became distracted. The ending was somewhat abrupt and I don't think that memorable.

The cover is an anomaly.

Ana, I think we will appreciate it more in later life. It will be interesting to revisit it.

Thomas said...

I read Welty's equally brief autobiography "One Writer's Beginning" after I read The Optimists Daughter. The two books are strikingly similar.

Paperback Reader said...

Hi Thomas, thanks for commenting. I will need to look out for the Welty autobiography - thanks for the tip!