The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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June 23, 2012

The Optimist's Daughter

When Laurel was a child, in this room and in this bed where she lay now, she closed her eyes like this and the rhythmic, nighttime sound of the two beloved reading voices came rising in turn up the stairs every night to reach her. She could hardly fall asleep, she tried to keep awake, for pleasure. She cared for her own books, but she cared more for theirs, which meant their voices. In the lateness of that 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 fairly tale, while they went reading on into her dreams.
Reading about Eudora Welty {here and here} was one of the highest points of my reading year, last year, and when Karen chose The Optimist's Daughter for the Cornflower Book Group this month, it was the push I needed to read more of her work. I couldn't be more grateful, because this is a lovely book, funny and sad and beautiful, and one of the best things about reading it was how much the woman you meet in a biography and in a book of letters comes through to you again in one of her novels.

The optimist is Judge McKelva, a respected, beloved lawyer and judge in the small town of Mount Salus, Mississippi. When he begins to lose his sight, he travels to New Orleans with his daughter, Laurel, and his second wife, Wanda Fay, to see his old friend, Dr. Courtland. Laurel is a single working woman in her 40s; she lost her husband soon after her marriage and has moved away to Chicago. Wanda Fay is from Texas, silly, brassy, dramatic, selfish, and self-indulgent. After Dr. Courtland operates, the judge must lay motionless in in bed, waiting to see if his eyesight returns. Laurel and her stepmother take turns sitting with him, until one night when Wanda Fay's disappointment overwhelms her, and a tragedy happens.

All of the characters are so beautifully drawn, even the unlikeable ones, even the minor ones. When Laurel brings her father home to bury him, the six bridesmaids from her wedding twenty years earlier (she was widowed very soon after) are waiting at the station, and their mothers, Dr. Courtland's sister, and her parent's other friends have already gathered at the judge's house to wait for them. No one, including Laurel, understands why the Judge married Wanda Fay, so different from Laurel's mother, and not one of them, but the friends and neighbors treat her with kindness and respect {and you sense that the author does, too.} One friend, Major Bullock, even takes it upon himself to find Wanda Fay's family, so she will not be alone, and the funnier scenes come when a few carloads of them arrive in Mississippi for the funeral. But Laurel has lost her father, and her childhood home, and some if not all of her ties to Mount Salus, and she must also confront Wanda Fay over what happened on the night that her father died.

This is a short novel, about 180 pages, originally published in The New Yorker in 1969, and so very worth reading. Funny and closely observed in places, and heartbreaking in places {probably because I'm an optimist's daughter, too}. I think this would probably be a perfect introduction to Eudora Welty if you haven't read her, and a wonderful way to spend more time with her if you have. I think this may become one of the highest points of my reading year, this year.  Laurel is not the most colorful character in the book, but she's a very sympathetic one, and the ending of the book was just what I would have wanted for her.


JoAnn said...

I really enjoyed this book... Welty has written some wonderful characters! Her collected stories are on my nightstand, but I'm really looking forward to reading more of her novels, too.

Anonymous said...

I have read Eudora Welty, and now I must pull out my copy of this one. Though 'One Writer's beginnings' is also calling loudly ...

lifeonthecutoff said...

I hover around your blog, always enjoying it, and just wanted to thank you for this. I just checked The Optimist's Daughter from the library and am anxious to have a good sit-down read - just as soon as I finish a book you might be interested in called One Writer's Garden. It is chock full of pictures of the Welty garden in Jackson, Mississippi and how Eudora Welty's garden influenced her writing. It is a bit more than a coffee table book, not quite a biography, and a treasure for Welty fans.

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