East of Eden by John Steinbeck

East of Eden

1952. Penguin. ebook. 620 pages.

East of Eden was one of my favorite reads last year. I felt like Steinbeck threw his whole self into writing this epic novel. You can see where East of Eden could have become wild and unwieldy and at times it’s careening down a philosophical tangent, but he keeps this gargantuan story on course. There are two brothers (Adam and Charles) and then later two more brothers (Cal and Aron), and their stories evoke Biblical parallels. In the background the history of America plays out and its wars. Just when you think you know where you’re headed, the book introduces Cathy, and you realize – oh! this book has a psychopath. And meanwhile, into this fiction Steinbeck weaves what appears to be some of his own family history, about his mother’s family, the Hamiltons. John Steinbeck even makes a couple of cameo appearances as a little boy.

One of my favorite characters was Lee, a thoughtful, kind character who is the son of Chinese immigrants, and works for the Adam Trask. Lee’s relationship with his surrogate father and later his surrogate daughter were the main emotional touchstones for me.

The writing is magnificent. At one point, Steinbeck begins a chapter by noting that the story approached the year 1900. “In the books of some memories it was the best time that ever sloshed over the world.” This passage soon wends its way into a brief and cynical two-page summation of the 19th century:

The Mexican War did two good things though. We got a lot of western land, damn near doubled our size, and besides that it was a training ground for generals, so that when the sad self-murder settled on us the leaders knew the techniques for making it properly horrible.

This strain of cynicism, and worldly-wise is balanced by moments of gentle heartbreak, such as when the patriarch of the Hamilton family surrenders to old age and decides to go live with his daughter until the end of his days. The emotional scope and tone of the novel is as great and varied as its cast of characters.

I’d read and enjoyed short works by Steinbeck previously – Of Mice and Men and “The Red Pony” – but wasn’t expecting to love this book as much as I did. It’s got that spark of timelessness that all good classics do. I’m not a stranger to reading classics, but I still get surprised by how accessible they can be.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Owlish Reader – “The story left me overwhelmed, but in a subtle way. I can’t quite put my finger on what it was that left me with that immense feeling of contentment and fondness.”

Rivers I Have Known – “This novel is genius diluted by mediocre,  resulting in a tolerable, reasonably interesting read that will perhaps improve on rereading because I will know which parts to skip.”

Tiny Little Reading Room – “One thing that really amazed me was that, amongst all the threads, there were a bunch of little anecdotes that had nothing to do with the main story, yet they enriched it greatly.”



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16 responses to “East of Eden by John Steinbeck

  1. This is a favorite of mine. I need to read it again.

  2. One of my all-time favorites! Have been considering a reread, but I haven’t read Grapes of Wrath since high school and will probably do that first.

    • I’ve never felt drawn to read Grapes of Wrath, even now after loving East of Eden, and I have no idea why. I probably will still read it someday and will no doubt like it, since so far my record with Steinbeck has been good.

  3. Oh, now I’m far more interested in this book than I have been — my husband’s copy has been sitting gathering dusting on our bookshelves for years, but I haven’t been really tempted until I read this review and the ones you linked. It’s kind of chunkster, isn’t it? I just remember being forced to read some Steinbeck in high school ages ago, and I suppose it prejudiced me against him, because apparently assigning me to read something is the best way to keep me from reading it, haha.

    • I was definitely daunted by East of Eden’s size, so I’m thankful that it was picked by my book club and that pushed me to read it. There are some slow moments, but for the most part, I thought it read quickly for such a chunkster. There are some authors for whom I still harbor lingering high school prejudices – I remember being a bit bored by Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment in high school and haven’t tried him again since which is probably unfair.

  4. piningforthewest

    I’m waiting to get this one from the library, I’m number two on their request list. I recently enjoyed The Moon is Down, and I loved Travels with Charley.

  5. So, I read The Grapes of Wrath in college, and I liked Steinbeck’s writing so, so much, even though the book as a book wasn’t necessarily a perfect fit for me? I haven’t read anything else by him since, but I’m planning to read East of Eden AT SOME POINT. Bloggers love it, and I think Steinbeck’s writing is very well worth it.

    • It’s definitely worth it. I sometimes feel that there are the classics you admire and the classics you love, and this one is definitely in the “love” category. I can’t compare to Grapes of Wrath, though, as I haven’t read it.

  6. Sin

    Thank you for the mention. 🙂 I want to tackle Grapes of Wrath soon. Any tips?

    • You’re welcome! I definitely identified with what you said about feeling contentment and fondness after finishing the book. I actually haven’t read Grapes of Wrath. I’m sure it’s good, though the next Steinbeck I’ll probably read is Travels with Charley.

  7. I read this in college after watching the movie (for James Dean, of course) and LOVED it. And I hardly ever read novels or any books this long. And it was interesting because I loved the movie for itself too–the woman they cast for Dean/Cal’s mother was an awesome actress. A great watching and reading experience–very rare to get the twofer!

    • I haven’t seen the movie but glad to hear you think it was good, as I wondered how such a sprawling film would be wrangled into a feature film length. From what I gather, the movie mainly focuses on Cal / Aron’s part of the story? It was probably pretty easy to cut out most of the Hamilton family bits, but I also assume some of Adam/Cathy’s individual backstories was also curtailed.

      • Oh, that’s true. The movie shows just a very small percentage of the story, and does indeed focus on the brothers–hardly any of Adam/Cathy’s back stories are given. It’s definitely worth a watch, if nothing else because it constitutes an entire third of his film appearances!

  8. Pingback: Joining the Classics Club | A Good Stopping Point

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