Jeffrey Keeten's Reviews > The Optimist's Daughter

The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty
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Aug 17, 12

Recommended to Jeffrey by: On the Southern Literary Trail
Read from August 14 to 16, 2012

"Memory lived not in initial possession but in the freed hands, pardoned and freed, and in the heart that can empty but fill again, in the patterns restored by dreams."


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Eudora Welty

Eudora Welty won the Pulitzer Prize for this book in 1973. It was written much later than the bulk of the rest of her work. She had, as it turned out, one more little gem left in her pen. I've read some other reviews and realize that the book was confusing to some people even to the point that they gave up relatively early in the book. I understand because you see we are outsiders in this book. We are missing the beginning and really a lot of the beginning. Conversations are flying around our heads that we have no basis of knowledge to fully understand. The people in this book have known each other their entire lives and their conversations flitter from decade to decade without pausing to fill in the gaps for those of us just visiting.

It was hard to have sympathy for the character Fay McKelva, but it was only after I had finished the book and had pondered on my feelings for a while that I realized how crazy that town was driving this little girl from Madrid, Texas. Fay wasn't bright enough or patient enough to just listen, nod, and accumulate knowledge. I always think of myself in these situations as the Antonio Banderas character from the superb movie The thirteenth Warrior. He is an Arab who is placed with twelve Norse warriors on a quest and he doesn't know a single word of their language, but he keeps listening.

So the key to this book was to keep listening.

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Antonio Banderas as Ahmad ibn Fadlan

Laurel Hand comes back home to Mississippi to be a support for her father, Judge McKelva, during a minor surgery to correct a torn retina in his eye. His wife, Fay McKelva, younger than his daughter is also there to offer support, but really seems to be more of a hindrance than a help to the recover of her 72 year old husband.

Unexpectedly the Judge takes a turn for the worse and Laurel feels the need to stay at the hospital hoping he will start to get better. I've spent time at a hospital waiting for people to die and the hospital becomes this condensed warped existence that I'll let Laurel explain.

"A strange milky radiance shone in a hospital corridor at night, like moonlight on some deserted street. The whitened floor, the whitened wall and ceiling, were set with narrow bands of black receding into the distance, along which the spaced-out doors, graduated from large to small, were all closed. But of course the last door on the right of the corridor, the one standing partway open as usual, was still her father's."

She reads to her father, trying to find the right book that will help him return to health. One of her fondest memories as a child was listening to her father and mother read to one another.

"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 the 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 fairy tale, while they went reading on into her dreams."

Judge McKelva dies and then the struggle between the daughter that has known him her entire life, and the new wife that has only known him a short time becomes painful. The wife makes all the arraignments.

In the words of Fay:

"How could the biggest fool think I was going to bury my husband with his old wife? He's going in the new part."

I took that slap to the face right along with Laurel. I felt the heat rise in my neck and the need to say "you have no right", but the fact of the matter is Fay does have the right.

Laurel has lost her mother, her husband, and her father. It made me think about the people I have lost. I lost a sister, who died on my birthday. She only breathed for three days. I lost a saintly grandmother who died in such horrific pain that I have never forgiven the religion that she spent so much time nurturing. I've lost friends who died way too young, Chris Blue at 31, Mike Achilles at 55, and David Thompson at 38. My father's twin sister, Shirley, who was my favorite aunt died at 46. I went to see her near the end. She was a husk of her former beauty. A woman that knew I was coming and wanted lipstick for her lips. She always wanted to look her best even after cancer had shrunk her features tight against her skull and had taken her lustrous dark brown hair. She told me I looked like a movie star and how proud she was of me. I will never forget her bony fingers in my hand as fragile as glass. To say that this book got under my skin might be an understatement.

Laurel remembers her husband Phillip and what she remembers is his hands. I can identify with his double-jointed issues see picture below. Phillip had large, good hands, and extraordinary thumbs--double-jointed where they left the palms, nearly at right angles; their long, blunt tips curved strongly back. When she watched his right hand go about its work, it looked to her like the Hand of his name.

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One of my Freaky Double-Jointed Thumbs

This can be a confusing book, but my advice is to hang in there. Let the language become more familiar as the book advances. We don't know these people. We are strangers in a small town in Mississippi. We need time to catch up with what we need to know to even support our end of a conversation. This book may very well haunt you. A day later after finishing it I'm still thinking about it and having rolling tides of emotions. I'm mad at Judge McKelva for giving up too easily. Laurel has lost too much too soon in life and she really needed him to come back. He needed to let her read him back to health.

The people are telling stories about Judge McKelva at the viewing and Laurel is amazed at how little they seemed to understand about his real accomplishments. "And everybody had already forgotten about that part of his life, his work, his drudgery. This town deserved him no more than Fay deserved him, she thought, her finger in the dust on what he'd written." It is scary to think about being so misunderstood after we are gone. We can only hope our children understand and can tell the stories the right way to our grandchildren.
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Comments (showing 1-24 of 24) (24 new)

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Jeffrey Keeten A few pictures will be added after Photobucket is up and running again.


message 2: by Steve (new)

Steve I'm liking it even without the pictures, Jeffrey. Nice job mixing quotes and commentary!


Jeffrey Keeten Steve wrote: "I'm liking it even without the pictures, Jeffrey. Nice job mixing quotes and commentary!"

Thanks Steve! I always feel like I bite off more than I can chew in these reviews. Bringing all the elements together takes some tap dancing.


Diane Barnes It's interesting that you felt as though you didn't know the people or the town, as a reader, and had to listen to understand. It was just the opposite for me; I felt as though I had stepped out for a minute and came back in the middle of the conversation, especially at the visitation in the home.


Jeffrey Keeten Diane wrote: "It's interesting that you felt as though you didn't know the people or the town, as a reader, and had to listen to understand. It was just the opposite for me; I felt as though I had stepped out ..."

I must apologize for this review. I had intended to have some pics to help tie in why I selected some of these pieces, but photobucket has been down for maintenance all day long. I finally loaded what I had with some frustration.

I had read other reviews where people had struggled to finish this very short book and wanted to address what they may have been experiencing while attempting to read this novel. At first I found the dialogue a little difficult to follow, but knew that if I hung in there and let more of it wash over me I would begin to catch up. I wanted to offer encouragement to people to go back and give it another look because I ended up really liking this book. It doesn't surprise me that you identified better with the dialogue as I assume you have those types of interactions frequently while living in the South.


message 6: by Kris (new) - added it

Kris Great review as always, Jeffrey, It sounds like dropping the reader into the midst of relationships and conversations already underway could transfer a sense of being off balance when returning home to a small town after some time away - you have to adjust to the fact that, while some of the landscape may look the same, life has continued, requiring you to deal with memories while also addressing the present. I haven't read this yet, so it's possible this isn't the dynamic at all. :)


Jeffrey Keeten Kris wrote: "Great review as always, Jeffrey, It sounds like dropping the reader into the midst of relationships and conversations already underway could transfer a sense of being off balance when returning hom..."

Oh yes exactly Kris. After an initial what the heck is going on moment I stuck with it and started to catch up. Thanks for your support Kris. I will bet you will like this book.


Gary I remember liking this book very much......but it's been so many years since I've read it.....I imagine I need to give it another read sometime in the near future.

Great review,Jeff! Thanks a lot for your insights!


Jeffrey Keeten Gary wrote: "I remember liking this book very much......but it's been so many years since I've read it.....I imagine I need to give it another read sometime in the near future.

Great review,Jeff! Thanks a lot ..."


Thanks Gary! I can see myself rereading this in a few years.


message 10: by B0nnie (new) - added it

B0nnie Jeffrey, wonderful touching review (damn! no pun intended). The double joint is freaky. Does it help you play guitar?


Jeffrey Keeten B0nnie wrote: "Jeffrey, wonderful touching review (damn! no pun intended). The double joint is freaky. Does it help you play guitar?"

It took me a long time to get my thumb muscles stronger so that my thumbs would quit jackknifing at the joint nearest the palm. I did play guitar for a while as a kid until sports starting taking up all my spare time. My weird thumbs are just more a conversation piece for a pub gathering after everyone has had a pint or two. Thanks Bonnie!


message 12: by Terry (new)

Terry Very nice, and moving, review Jeffrey! There's definitely something to be said for being dropped right into the middle of a story as long as the author can pull it off.


Jeffrey Keeten Terry wrote: "Very nice, and moving, review Jeffrey! There's definitely something to be said for being dropped right into the middle of a story as long as the author can pull it off."

Thank you Terry! I don't mind not understanding everything. Sometime a reader just has to relax and let it wash over them for a while. Short book too only 181 pages.


message 14: by Sue (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sue Nice review Jeffrey. I also didn't mind being dropped in the middle of things. Having recently read The Collected Stories, I knew Welty would take care of me, the reader. And the way she did, in fits and starts, added to dimensions of the characters for me. As I think of it, once again I am amazed at her techniques for providing information. Here, so much is provided by the characters themselves in conversation. One clever writer!


message 15: by Mike (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mike Superb impressions that make me eagerly anticipate my Kansas cousin's reviews. I think I'll put on "Twin Sons of Different Mothers." Your reviews are always a special treat.

Mike


Jeffrey Keeten Sue wrote: "Nice review Jeffrey. I also didn't mind being dropped in the middle of things. Having recently read The Collected Stories, I knew Welty would take care of me, the reader. And the way she did, in fi..."

Thank you Sue, clever writer indeed. My respect grew for her the deeper I went in the novel.


message 17: by Jeffrey (last edited Aug 17, 2012 11:34AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jeffrey Keeten Mike wrote: "Superb impressions that make me eagerly anticipate my Kansas cousin's reviews. I think I'll put on "Twin Sons of Different Mothers." Your reviews are always a special treat.

Mike"


Thanks Sir Michael. I try to convey what the book made me think about while I was reading it. I know sometimes my thought processes don't make sense to everyone, but generally it gives my reviews a different flavor. You, my friend, are the reviewer I aspire to be.


message 18: by Sue (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sue I feel I'm in the midst of some heavyweight reviewers here. And it's such a pleasure to be enjoying reading both your reviews, Jeffrey and Mike.


Jeffrey Keeten Sue wrote: "I feel I'm in the midst of some heavyweight reviewers here. And it's such a pleasure to be enjoying reading both your reviews, Jeffrey and Mike."

Thanks Sue. Reading these great reviews from so many inspired readers is such a treat for me.


Wordsmith Beautiful Jeffery. The beauty of this book is in it's subtlety, which, upon further reflection, isn't subtle after all. You come to realize it's right there on the page, in every meaningful passage that Welty pens. As you highlighted here, with just a few. A really (more than) nice review.


message 21: by Gary (new) - rated it 5 stars

Gary Your thumb, yikes...... lol.


Jeffrey Keeten Wordsmith wrote: "Beautiful Jeffery. The beauty of this book is in it's subtlety, which, upon further reflection, isn't subtle after all. You come to realize it's right there on the page, in every meaningful passage..."

Thank you Wordsmith. The book, though small in length, packed a wallop that grew in significance as I advanced through the pages. It made me consider things I've faced with new perspective and also think about things I haven't faced yet like the death of a parent. It also gave me opportunity to show off my freaky thumbs. haha


Jeffrey Keeten Gary wrote: "Your thumb, yikes...... lol."

It gave girls an excuse to play with my hands. haha.


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