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.”