The Optimist’s Daughter

How about a break from the latest literary sensations? Forty years ago, Eudora Welty of Jackson, Miss., won the Pulitzer Prize for The Optimist’s Daughter, her last work of published fiction. The anniversary of this achievement is a fitting time to reach for this superb short novel.

The initial setting may serve as a lure for south Louisiana readers. Laurel Hand accompanies her father, Judge McKelva, and his young, new wife, Fay, to confer with an ophthalmologist in New Orleans during Carnival. Laurel, “a slender, quiet-faced woman in her middle forties,” has flown from her home in Chicago to be with her father for this appointment and decides to stay for the surgery recommended to reattach his right retina. For weeks, the sensitive Laurel and the stunningly self-absorbed Fay are thrown together.

In Mount Salus, Miss., where the two women head by train with (spoiler alert) the deceased judge, Laurel’s chatty old friends and neighbors are waiting. Their frank, funny dialogue reveals their small-town sense of shared history. While Fay is viewed as an outsider, Laurel’s status, in her own eyes, is more ambiguous. Through the funeral and its aftermath, the widowed Laurel is moved to confront her and her family’s past.

One reviewer in 1972 hailed The Optimist’s Daughter as a “a miracle of compression.” Indeed, it reads like a sonata rather than a symphony. Welty had been honing her literary skills since the 1930s; when she was almost 30, Robert Penn Warren at The Southern Review began accepting some of her earliest short stories. In her memory—Welty’s professed greatest “treasure”—Baton Rouge and her Southern Review friends retained a place of honor.

If you’re still on the fence, consider that the book’s final scene is as riveting as any penned by Grisham or Picoult. It’s Fay and Laurel, alone again. But Laurel is now armed with a breadboard and new wisdom: “For her life, any life, she had to believe, was nothing but the continuity of its love.”