Book Review: The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty
If I were to indulge my faux-literary-critic persona here and use some high-sounding phraseology to talk about Eudora Welty’s last novel (the novel that won her the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1973), I would say that The Optimist’s Daughter contains an interesting “reversal of climaxes” that challenges readers to think carefully about what it all means. And by “all” I mean the narrative of the book and also “all” -- what it ALL means. This “reversal”, I could pontificate, happens as the novel shifts and parries and kind of hits you in the back of the head when it kills off a main character only a third of the way through the book. The rest of the novel then becomes about the nearly anti-climactic funeral for that character and we have to use our “imagination” (a theme throughout the novel) to truly understand the tensions that continue to drive the narrative. Now, I have to be careful. I might be starting to sound like I possibly, really liked this book. Well, it was okay, I guess, for the record, but honestly it felt a little underdeveloped or only marginally realized or something. Not that I’m qualified to say, I’m just a reader, not a professional, despite my sometimes ambitious vocabulary.
I do find it interesting that Welty lies at rest beneath words from this novel. The quote on her gravestone is reputedly, "For her life, any life, she had to believe, was nothing but the continuity of its love.” (Had someone been listening to Abbey Road for cryin’ out loud … “And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make …”) For me, if I had to pick a line from this book to be on my gravestone (rather than from Abbey Road, which I in many ways prefer), and I’m being pretty serious here though that’s not often my M.O., I might choose the following paraphrase:
“Memory lives not in possession but in the freed hands and the heart that can fill again.”
I’m not a hundred percent certain what that means, but I think if you look at memory as a function of imagination and imagination as a tool of freedom then maybe … Awfully optimistic for words on a gravestone, isn’t it? But that’s what this book is about to some degree, at least it’s in the title … But maybe I should stick to The Beatles. Something like,
“It's been a long cold lonely winter / … Here comes the sun, and I say / It's all right.”
If you don’t know what I’m talking about … well, let’s not go there. I choose the optimistic view that everyone’s pretty familiar with Abbey Road and The Beatles in general and knows that that lyric comes from "Here Comes the Sun," track 7 (first track of side B if you’re into vinyl), the beginning of the lead-up to that glorious "Medley" of brief song-poems I once actually heard played in its entirety on the radio ... Or not. No biggie.
(But seriously, if you’re not sure what I’m talking about please click here.)