Book Review: The Optimist's Daughter


“The fantasies of dying could be no stranger than the fantasies of living. Survival is perhaps the strangest fantasy of them all.”Eudora Welty

Years ago I tackled a reading list which I never fully conquered: reading every Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction. I was about a third of the way through the list before I recognized my tastes didn't always align with the selection committee. Even now I find hits (All the Light We Cannot See) and some misses (A Visit From The Goon Squad).

Still, I occasionally venture back to the list because, undoubtedly there's something great I've missed.

This week's reading proved the return trip worthwhile as I discovered The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty.

The overview from the book jacket sets up the short novel best:

The Optimist's Daughter is the story of Laurel McKelva Hand, a young woman who has left the South and returns, years later, to New Orleans, where her father is dying. After his death, she and her silly young stepmother go back still farther, to the small Mississippi town where she grew up. Alone in the old house, Laurel finally come to an understanding of the past, herself, and her parents.

If you can't tell from the description, this is a VERY low action story; it's all character driven.  In fact, if you require a bunch of movement to stay engaged in a story, this book won't work for you. Even though the book is under 200 pages, it is not a light and breezy book.

However, if you love beautiful prose and want to watch a person change before your eyes, you'll love The Optimist's Daughter.

I found myself savoring the words the way I do the flavors from a great meal.

For instance, during the father's funeral Laurel is having an internal battle about how her dad is being eulogized. She rails against the way people are already remaking the essence of the man.

"'What burdens we lay on the dying,' Laurel thought, as she listened to the accelerated rain on the roof: 'seeking to prove some little thing that we can keep to comfort us when they can no longer feel --- something as incapable of being kept as being proved: the lastingness of memory, vigilance against harm, self-reliance, good hope, trust in one another.'"

I love how we don't just hear her thoughts, we feel the urgency of the weather -  "accelerated rain" - so good!

When Laurel has to wake up her ridiculous stepmother Fay, she pulls out a brilliant insight.

“Laurel could not see her face but only the back of her neck, the most vulnerable part of anybody, and she thought: Is there any sleeping person you can be entirely sure you have not misjudged?”

Much of the narrative is spent watching Laurel see things in a new light. She understands the snide politeness of Southern society.  She struggles with being home and yet not feeling she belongs. She marvels at how well neighbors and systems keep moving after death.

And after every observation I found myself thinking, true.

“'The mystery in how little we know of other people is no greater than the mystery of how much,' Laurel thought.”

Even when Laurel has a final clash with her stepmother Fay, the tempo is measured, thoughtful, and takes time to absorb.

"For Fay was without any powers of passion or imagination in herself and had no way to see it or reach it in the other person. Other people, inside their lives, might as well be invisible to her."

Quoted in isolation, these snippets might not give you a sense of the book, but if you're a student of human character, this is a worthy read.