Novella a Day in May 2019 #27

The Optimist’s Daughter – Eudora Welty (1972) 180 pages

Last year’s Novella a Day in May introduced me to Eudora Welty, when I read and loved The Ponder Heart. I was very happy to revisit her again this year, with her Pulitzer Prize winning novella, The Optimist’s Daughter.

This isn’t as comic as The Ponder Heart. Instead it’s a quiet study of people experiencing the immediate aftermath of grief. Laurel lives in Chicago, but travels back to New Orleans at the time of Mardi Gras, to be with her father who is having eye surgery.

“At the sting in her eyes, she remembered for him there must be no tears in his, and she reached to put her hand into his open hand and press it gently.”

She is an only child and her mother died several years ago. Her father, Judge McKelva, remarried after 10 years, a much younger woman named Fay. Fay is completely self-centred and unable to see beyond her own needs. She can’t believe that the older man she married has the audacity to be ill and frail.

“ ‘All on my birthday. Nobody told me this was going to happen to me!’ Fay cried, before she slammed her door.”

Spoiler: the Judge dies, and Laurel and Fay return to Mississippi to see him buried. Here, Laurel rediscovers the compassion and care of a community who have known her for her entire life. (This being Welty the cast of characters includes someone named Miss Tennyson Bullock). She moves around the home she once knew and remembers her mother and father.

“In her need tonight Laurel would have been willing to wish her mother and father dragged back to any torment of living because that torment was something they had known together, through each other. She wanted them with her to share her grief as she had been the sharer of theirs. She sat and thought of only one thing, of her mother holding and holding onto their hands, her own and her father’s holding onto her mother’s, long after there was nothing more to be said.”

The Optimist’s Daughter is a gentle tale, about memory, loss, love, community and pain. It’s about how our experience of these is unique to us. It’s a novella full of images around sight, and it shows how seeing clearly demonstrates the need to be kind to ourselves and others.

I’m fast becoming a huge Welty fan.

10 thoughts on “Novella a Day in May 2019 #27

    • It’s a very poignant, wise novel, without ever being didactic.

      Yes, very relevant for our times, Fay is a self-obsessed, shouty child in an adult’s body who demands her needs are always met. Welty doesn’t judge her harshly but certainly shows that kindness and consideration of others is the way to go.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I really like the sound of this one. I have read Eudora Welty twice, the first time, I didn’t get on well with her, and the book was a dnf. The second was Delta Wedding which I really rather loved. I like quiet character studies, so this would be right up my street.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. She’s a writer I’ve consistently enjoyed but I never have made a point of more determinedly gathering up and reading her work. Likely should!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ali also said she loved some of her work and struggled with others – it’s interesting that her different works bring out such different reactions in the same reader. I guess it shows she’s not doing the same thing over again each time. I have Losing Battles in the TBR which I’m looking forward to.

      Like

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