The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty
This isn’t the first time I’ve been disappointed by a Pulitzer Prize winner and it probably won’t be the last…. but for heavens sakes – what were the judges thinking? The Optimist’s Daughter falls short on all fronts. The characters are vastly one dimensional. The plot almost non existent, the dialogue cryptic, the theme may be clear to some people but was abstract to me. And it is a total mystery why the book was titled The Optimist’s Daughter.
This is the story of a 40 year old woman – an only child, coming back to her home town because her father, a respected judge and pillar of the community is having an operation on his eyes. Judge McKelva is an optimist…. so the title says. But in reality, he seems like just the opposite. In fact, I would venture to say he’s given up on life. His second marriage to a very young, crude, self-centered trailer-trash wench seems to have left him helplessly shattered and lethargic. So much so, that he dies in his New Orleans hospital bed after wicked wife number two yells at him for ruining her chance to enjoy Mardi Gras.
That is the opening chapter. After the unexpected – and largely unexplained death the bereaved daughter, and the disgruntled wife go back to the family house. The last three-quarters of the short novella takes place at the house and cemetery with a variety of characters; neighbors, towns-people, the wife’s family, and the daughter’s friends. There is nothing substantial revealed about any of the characters past. It takes on the semblance of watching a play enacted on a stage. What you see is what you get. The funeral is an awkward fiasco.
Amidst odd bits of dialogue which are presented in such a way that makes one feel like an outsider eavesdropping (on strangers) Eudora Welty leaves it up to the reader to figure out what the story is all about – but the characters are not interesting enough to make the effort. And the story, less than 180 pages, is so abrupt there is no time to develop a vested interest in the outcome.
What does exist of a plot barely seems realistic. That a staunch conservative judge could impulsively marry someone half his age who is so horribly ignorant. And that too, is annoying. The over-stated exaggerated ignorance…. the wife was like a seven year old throwing one big long continuous tantrum… a bit over-the-top ridiculous.
Welty’s writing style is simplistic, but eloquent. For that alone I believe she accumulated many awards over the years for her fictional writing. Some readers may feel that is all they need in a novel. I expect more. In fact, I would trade some of the eloquence for a good captivating plot or realistic deeply drawn characters.
Rated 2 Stars, May 2016
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