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.