Saturday, August 4, 2012

East of Eden by John Steinbeck



Wow.  

East of Eden is one of the books I've had on my to-read list the longest, ever since I started on my quest to read more classics back in 2005.  Somehow, I managed to graduate from high school and college without reading a single word of Steinbeck.  When I started to read classics as an adult, I knew I'd finally have to read his books, and at first I was very apprehensive -- Grapes of Wrath sounded so dire.  But I joined an online classics group and one of the first books I read with the group was Travels with Charley, which I absolutely loved, so I became a Steinbeck convert.

I bought my copy of East of Eden at a library sale about four years ago, and I've packed and unpacked it in three different houses.  For about three years now, it's been the book I most wanted to read off my TBR shelves.  It was my daughter's assigned summer reading for her high school English class next year, so I decided to read it along with her.  And it was really worth it.  Why did I wait so long??  Was I saving the best Steinbeck for last?   

It's kind of hard to describe this book.  It's long and sprawling, and spans about 50 years, from just after the Civil War to World War I, and the story is covers American coast to coast  from New England to California.  Inspired by the Genesis stories of Cain and Abel and Adam and Eve, it's the story of the Trask family, about sibling rivalry and fathers and sons.  It also contains some of Steinbeck's best characters, including what is probably one of the most evil characters in American literature.  

Though it's Steinbeck's longest work at 600 pages long, I raced through it in just a few days.  The plot and the characters are really compelling.  It starts out with two half-brothers in New England, Adam and Charles Trask, who are competing for their father's love, living on a farm after the Civil War.  Just like Cain and Abel, their father favors one son over the other, and the less-beloved son takes his jealousy out on his brother.  

In this story, there are two sets of brothers, and love for a woman also fuels the rivalry.  I don't want to give too much away, but Steinbeck weaves together Biblical allusions and California history in a masterful way.  He also incorporates characters based on his own ancestors.  Adam Trask moves out to the Salinas Valley, where Steinbeck grew up.  There's a lot of local color with a delightful Irish family, the Hamiltons, and a faithful family servant, Mr. Lee, who starts out as a cook but becomes much more to the family, a tutor, nanny, and he's basically the one holding the family together after things start to fall apart.

I loved this book although I did find some flaws in it.  Steinbeck is pretty heavy-handed with the Biblical allusions -- not only are there two sets of brothers (with initials beginning with C and A) Steinbeck spends paragraphs with characters philosophizing about the Bible and Cain and Abel, just in case the reader didn't get it.  Also, Lee is sort of an amazing wise Oriental sage, spouting wisdom -- he's just too good to be true. But there is so much great stuff in the novel that I can overlook the parts that bothered me.  

After finishing it, I really wanted to discuss it with someone else who was reading it with me -- my daughter is plodding along with it, but there's so much in it that I don't think she'll understand; in fact, I'm not even sure why this was assigned to high school sophomores!  I really wish I had chosen this instead of Tortilla Flat for my library's book group -- it's longer, but there's so much more in it and it's so much better!  It's more than twice as long but it's a far superior novel.  If you're interested in Steinbeck at all, do yourself a favor and don't bother with the shorter works.  East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath are absolute masterpieces and everyone should read them at least once.  

27 comments:

  1. This is absolutely one of my favorite books of all-time. It's consistently found a place in my ever-changing "Top 5" favorite books.. one of the few books that never falls down the metaphorical list. I'm so glad you enjoyed it, too!

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    1. I think it's my favorite Steinbeck now. I'm so glad I finally read it!

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  2. I love this book even though I've had problems with it too. I love the characters Lee and Samuel and all the bible talk. I thought that Cathy's demise was unrealistic. A person that cruel isn't going to give up so easily. I haven't read The Grapes of Wrath yet though I want to. Of Mice and Men is another Steinbeck masterpiece.

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    1. I also thought Adam moving to Salinas made no sense, he knew perfectly well Cathy was there.

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  3. I'll echo Adam as this is one of my all-time favorites. And it's definitely my favorite Steinbeck. There's so much to talk about. I think it's partially why the Franzen-type family dramas bore me. THIS is what an epic family story should be.

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    1. I've only read The Corrections, and I thought all the characters were just awful. I don't remember much about it other than just hating them and the story. Zola writes about awful people, but the stories are still great and I can't stop reading him.

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  4. I haven't read Steinbeck yet though after reading your review its definitley on my TBR list. Is the type of writing that refers to biblical references in this book anything like Joyce's Portrait of An Artist as A Young Man? Because when I read that there was literally a ten page sermon smack in the middle of the book, and it was also full of biblical references.

    -Sarah

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    1. I haven't read anything by Joyce other than short stories. Characters sit around philosophizing in Steinbeck, but no ten-page sermons. And the rest is so good I can forgive the heavy-handed Biblical references.

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  5. I too never read any Steinbeck at school, don't know how I managed that! I was really pleased to see this review as I plan to read this book soon and seeing how much you enjoyed it has encouraged me :)

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    1. Oh, it's really good! I've read several by Steinbeck the past few years and liked most of them. Even the ones I didn't care for as much, I still found the writing to be good -- some of the stories are just really depressing like The Pearl and The Red Pony.

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  6. I read this a long time ago but I remember loving it. I would love to read it again sometime in the near future.

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    1. Oh, I hope you love it all over again. A couple of months ago I reread Of Human Bondage which was one of my very first classics. I'd almost forgotten the story entirely so it was like rereading it for the first time. Still wonderful!

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  7. I'm reading this right now and have to agree with you--not sure why I haven't picked up his work before. I have only read one of his short stories! But I started this and 'wow' was pretty much what I felt from the start. It's quite an ambitious work, but I think he pulls it off and will definitely now be reading the rest of his books!

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    1. I think his longest works are the best, though I loved Cannery Row and Travels with Charley. I still have several more I want to read too.

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  8. Reading your review & then the comments has pretty much convinced me to add this to my TBR list. Like you, I read Travels with Charley last year & really enjoyed it - and meant to look for more Steinbeck.

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    1. After Travels with Charley, I had the courage to try his longer works. Some of his books are really tragic which scared me.

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  9. Well, I loved Grapes of Wrath so this is goes on the list. I actually have a copy in one of my bookcases - now I just need to find it!

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    1. I lost my copy for more than a year! I had an entire box of books that got misplaced in one of our moves and so I actually bought a second copy at the library sale for $1. After I found the first copy I donated back to my new library, but I still had to buy a second copy for my daughter this year, but I had to spend $8 at Half-Price Books. Oh well.

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  10. East of Eden is one of my all-time favorites, too. It's definitely worth packing and unpacking as you move from house to house! The Grapes of Wrath is on my Classics Club list... haven't read it since high school, so a reread is long overdue.

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    1. I think I have to reread Grapes of Wrath too, just to compare it to East of Eden. I'm just sorry I took so long to read them both!

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  11. This is encouraging. I've been a bit intimidated to pick up this book. I do have to say that I did love Grapes of Wrath so I now think I will probably love this book too.

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    1. I think I liked it better than Grapes of Wrath because it wasn't completely tragic, at least for some of the characters.

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  12. Well, you've convinced me. I've read quite a few of his books, I loved Travels with Charley too, but I've avoided this one so far, probably because of its bulk.

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    1. It seems long but it was a really fast read. I had to find out what happened!

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  13. I want my next Classics Club read to be a 20th century author and I really should try more American literature so this sounds a good choice. Thanks for helping me decide. :-)

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  14. Hi there, would you like to link in to “Books You Loved”. Here is the link Books You Loved August Edition Cheers

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  15. I read East of Eden in high school, and really enjoyed it. Been meaning to reread it ever since, and I'm getting closer as I work my way through Steinbeck.

    I remember thinking Cathy was pretty unbelieveable as a character, but fascinating in a train-wreck sort of way.

    For the record, my daughter read Grapes of Wrath her senior year of high school, and loved it...though she admitted that she was in the minority!

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