Thanks to Cornflower for the gentle nudge to finally pick up one of Eudora Welty's novels (I read one of her essays several years ago). I took a peek at her discussion of The Optimist's Daughter yesterday and was pleased to see she was as impressed by the story as I was. It's a thoughtfully penned story which is sparingly told but rich in its portrayal of a daughter's grief for the death of her father. Welty reminds me a little of Willa Cather in that each creates characters that are so perceptive. Not much may happen in the story but by the end there is a realization and understanding of the events that in this case leaves the main character forward looking.
The Optimist's Daughter was published in 1972 and written shortly after her mother's death in 1966. Welty won a Pulitzer for it. It sounds as though it was somewhat autobiographical, and reading her slightly later work, One Writer's Beginnings would be highly illuminating I suspect as she delves into her own relationship with her parents. Those experiences informed her fiction writing, so it almost sounds as though it would be a blueprint of sorts (if that ever actually happens in literature) to understanding her work a little better.
At the beginning of the story Laurel McKelva Hand has arrived in New Orleans, where her father is preparing to undergo surgery for an eye complaint. Her mother passed away several years prior also as a result of eye trouble, so Laurel is understandably shaken. Laurel's husband died in WWII, but she remained in Chicago to work as a designer in the theater rather than returning home to Mount Salus, Mississippi. Unaccountably her father has remarried a much younger woman, a typist, he met in his work as a judge. Fay McKelva is vulgar and strident and not much liked by the people of Mount Salus, but she and the judge are seen out and about prior to his illness. Fay's selfish and self-centered behavior only hurries the judge along to his death despite signs that he had been recovering well from the operation.
Both women accompany the judge back to Mount Salus for his burial. Unsurprisingly there is friction between not only Fay and Laurel, but Fay and everyone else, too. It was understood that Fay would have no mourners from her family until they all show up, and quite a cast of characters they are, too. Becky, Laurel's mother and the judge's first wife, was much loved, and while her presence is palpable there is no looking back. Fay is happy to remind everyone that she is the judge's wife now and things will go according to her wishes, and the sense is that she will destroy everything that Laurel once valued. When Fay decides to go back to Texas with her family for a short visit, it gives Laurel a chance to reflect on her life and memories growing up before she returns to Chicago and her own life.
The Optimist's Daughter is my first book (I am told she is an exceptional short story writer, too) by Welty, and while I was impressed by her writing as I was reading, I admit that there is something, too, that seems a little impenetrable about her work. Ambiguous is a better word, actually, as that is what one writer used when I was doing a little additional reading about the novel. She makes use of complex structure and symbolism, which I am sure I mostly missed (going as I normally do for "story" first).
The short time Laurel is left alone in her childhood home, though still amongst her friends and neighbors gives her a chance to reflect on her parent's marriage, her role in their lives and what her decision to live apart and far away from them has meant. Life is generally messy and how we remember events is rarely accurate, and as Laurel passes through the house discovering forgotten mementos of her mother and father's life she undergoes a series of revelations that will enable her to confidently pick up and move on with her life even as Fay will return and break everything in Mount Salus down.
At this point I think I could easily pick up One Writer's Beginnings (which I might just do as my library has a copy on the shelves) and then go back and read The Optimist's Daughter a little more carefully and confidently. As a side note, you might also know Welty was a WPA photographer (check out this Smithsonian article). Now I plan on enjoying her Photographs and will perhaps share more about it later. I was also given a copy of Moon Lake (thanks again, Cath), which is sitting atop my reading pile and I plan on tackling it on the upcoming Fourth of July holiday (it seems fitting that I spend the day reading American authors). It's one in a series of books published by Penguin that contains one short story (or a long short story in this case) with the cool silver covers (wouldn't it be nice to have the whole set? Hmm.).
Can anyone recommend other good books, short stories by her?