Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Optimist's Daughter - Eudora Welty

Title: The Optimist's Daughter
Author: Eudora Welty
Country: America (south)
Year: 1972
Rating: B+
Pages: 180 pgs

"Never think you've seen the last of anything" - Eudora Welty (she died on July 23, 2001)

First sentence (and second sentence, because I really like it): A nurse held the door open for them. Judge McKelva going first, then his daughter Laurel, then his wife Fay, they walked into the windowless room where the doctor would make his examination.

The Optimist's Daughter is a character-driven rather than a plot-driven story. Therefore, a quick summary of the plot does not do it justice. The majority of what makes the novella a good read is hidden below the surface, as Welty explores issues including love, loss, memory and the passage of time. Although short, it is not an easy read, and is best read at leisure, absorbing the words rather than scanning them.

One of the overarching themes of the novel is individual human memory; a reminder that memory is a living thing, and is itself subject to transit. The confluence of human memory is alluded to in the following passage, a memory that Laurel recalls of returning to Mount Salus with her husband:

"When they were climbing the long approach to a bridge after leaving Cairo, rising slowly higher until they rode above the tops of bare trees, she looked down and saw the pale light widening and the river bottoms opening out, and then the water appearing, reflecting the low, early, sun. There were two rivers. Here was where they came together. This was the confluence of the waters, the Ohio and the Mississippi...And they themselves were a part of the confluence. Their own joint act of faith had brought them here at the very moment and matched its occurrence, and proceeded as it proceeded. Direction itself was made beautiful, momentous." (p.159)
My only complaint with the novella was that I could never get a full sense of the characters. When I reached the last page, I wished that I knew and understood them better, particularly Laurel. The end was unsatisfying, and I longed to know more. Of course, this could have been Eudora Welty's intent.

A metaphor on the persistence of memories:
"It [the bird] could not get in here. But had it been in already? For how long had it made free of the house, shuttling through the dark rooms? And now Laurel could not get it out." (p.129)
Creating the perfect southern scene:
"Laurel, kneeling, worked among the iris that still held a ragged line along the back of the house up to the kitchen door...Her callers sat behind her and over to the side, in the open sunshine. These four elderly ladies were all at home in the McKelva backyard. Cardinals, flying down from low branches of the dogwood tree, were feeding here and there at the ladies' crossed feet. At the top of the tree, a mockingbird stood silent over them like a sentinel." (p.105)


Laura said...

I'll be reading this in August for the Southern Reading Challenge. Your review was a nice preview of things to come. Thanks!

Maggie said...

Don't forget about the "Sense of Place" Contest! A picture of a 50-yr-old working amongst the flowers would be perfect. Thanks for the review and quotes. What did you think of the bread board scene? I would have let her have it---on the head. :)

Nyssaneala said...

@laura - I think it will be a book that stays with me for quite a while, despite the seemingly simple story line. I hope you enjoy it!

@maggie - I definitely think I would have bonked her with it! I do wish Fay would have been fleshed out a bit more, she seemed a little one-sided. But, at the same time, she also REALLY reminded me of my grandfather's second wife. I've already passed the book on to my mom for that reason!

Dewey said...

I'm not part of that challenge, but I surely want to read this book! It sounds wonderful.

Nyssaneala said...

@dewey - It's definitely worth reading!

Alyson said...

Your review makes me want to pick up this book! It sounds like it really sticks with you.

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