The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty

Firelight and warmth - that is what her memory gave her. 

I'm still disappointed with the Pulitzer board for not naming a 2012 fiction winner, but instead of complaining too much (well, at least not here) I decided to pick up a past Pulitzer winner that I own but haven't yet read. It was between The Optimist's Daughter (1973)The Shipping News (1994), and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2008). Since I had The Optimist's Daughter lined up for the classics challenge as well, I went with that. I can't say I enjoyed it as much as I'd hoped, but you can't win them all.

The Optimist's Daughter follows Laurel McKelva Hand, a young woman who lives in Chicago and travels south to be by the side of her father who is having a routine eye operation. After he dies unexpectedly, Laurel returns to small town Mississippi, where she grew up, to bury her father. (She is named after the Mississippi state flower.) The majority of the short novel explores Laurel's childhood memories and her trips "up home". As certain memories resurface, Laurel comes to a better understanding of her adult self and just how lucky she is to have the cherished memories of a simpler time filled with love and care.  

As a whole, the book is slow moving but eloquently written. It explores the healing abilities of community, the power of memory, and the dignity of moving on.  However, I'm sad to say, I mostly found the novel on the dull side. I'm not one to complain about books in which "nothing ever happens"; I typically tend to really enjoy those kind of books. But this one just didn't do it. It felt too soft and too sweet for my taste. But, I'm not going to write Welty off completely, because the overall ideas behind the book are powerful and her writing is beautiful. Perhaps if I reread it a few years down the road I may enjoy it more. 

With that said, what I did appreciate was the deep sense of place Welty evoked, taking me to the deep south with pecan trees and big old houses with unkempt porches. I also liked that the novel explored the difference between arriving somewhere and simply finding yourself there. There were also a handful of truly lovely passages that detailed certain moments of happiness Laurel experienced as a child. For instance, when it was time to go to bed, Laurel's parents would read aloud to one another from a separate room. Laurel loved the sound of her parents reading and favored their books, so she tried to stay up as long as she could to hear them read:
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. 
There are moments of beauty throughout the novel, and as I mentioned above the ideas conveyed are powerful, but my actual reading experience was bland. It wasn't until the very end when it all came together that I began to appreciate the novel. I'm sure I'm in the minority on this one and I really wanted to like it more. I'm not saying it isn't worth the read, because it is. But for me, it was just a little too vanilla. 

Publisher: Vintage, 1972


  1. The quotation you provided certainly shows that the language is beautiful. I can't, for the life of me, remember if I've read Welty or not. I believe I did in college, but can't remember the title. It sounds like a novel one might pick up to pass a summer afternoon. Sorry you didn't enjoy it more.

  2. Oscar Wao is really really good.

  3. You read the only one I haven't read!

  4. My husband and I recently visited Eudora Welty's house and absolutely fell in love with the woman (we both already loved the writer). She is very much "of the South" and I love reading her that way, although I am sure many people would tell me I shouldn't. You make yourself a cup of sweet tea and kick back on the porch and read her slowly. I'm reading Delta Wedding right now, I like it a lot but I think her short stories are better than her novels.

  5. This sounds kind of like how I feel about The Golden Notebook, which is kind of like 'meh'. I'm fairly sure that most of the time the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize people have no idea what they're talking about.

    Also, I read a Pulitzer Prize winner this weekend too! Coincidence! (Mine was The Hours, which I think they got really really right :) )

  6. I'm reading one of her other books, Delta Wedding, for my classics book group meeting in May. It was my suggestion so I hope it's good.

    I've read both The Shipping News, which I loved, and Oscar Wao, which was harder for me. Oscar Wao was for another book group, and I really didn't get it until the book discussion (I hadn't even finished it). One of the members gave me a lot of insight into it so I finished it with a different perspective and appreciated it a lot more. There's a lot of Dominican folklore and history in it, and I think he said it had connections to hip-hop (if I remember correctly). At any rate, it made more sense after that and I liked it a lot more. One more reason why I love book groups.

  7. Every time I pick up a book I discover someone on my blog list reviewing it or the author! I'm sure there's a word for those you-think-about-something-and-suddenly-it's-everywhere sort of things.
    I'm reading some Eurdora Welty short stories at the minute because someone recommended her to me because I said I liked Willa Cather and Carson McCullers. I really like the stories so I'll definitely give this one a go.
    Couldn't get into the Shipping News at all but I LOVE her short stories.

  8. I'm always sorry to hear that books didn't work out for someone, even though it has to happen once in awhile, right? I'm not familiar with this one, but that quote certainly is beautiful.

    I've read The Shipping News, and wasn't really blown away by it (though I read it years ago, and might appreciate it more now). I have Oscar Wao on my shelf now and hope to read it sometime soon!