Monday, January 16, 2012

East of Eden by John Steinbeck — 608 pgs

In this 1952 classic novel written by acclaimed author John Steinbeck, the lives of two very different families living in California's Salinas Valley intertwine through the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The young Trask brothers, Adam and Charles, are raised by a stern military father who begins to subtly play favorites between the boys. This doesn't bother the affable and meek Adam, but the favoritism inspires a blind fury in Charles. When Charles unleashes his anger on Adam, their father sends him away to enlist in the war, leaving Charles behind to manage the farm alone. After many hard years in the service, Adam returns home to learn of his father's death. As the brothers work the land together in isolation, old problems begin to resurface. When a bruised and battered woman named Cathy collapses on their front steps one night, Adam decides to nurse her back to health and quickly falls in love. Though Cathy appears to be innocent and abused, she harbors a terrible violence and hatred in her heart and monstrous intentions towards those who stand in her way. Though Cathy successfully hides her soiled and dangerous disposition from Adam, Charles immediately knows that something is wrong. Adam and Cathy are married and quickly move to the Salinas Valley where Adam buys a prosperous farm and begins to make grand plans for his future. Among the other inhabitants of the valley are the Hamilton family, a large brood of Irish immigrants who have carved out a life for themselves on one of the most inhospitable patches of land in the area. Samuel, the patriarch of the Hamilton family, and Adam quickly become friends and confidantes. After Cathy gives birth to twins and runs away from Adam and the farm, it's Samuel who reaches out to the remaining Trask family and tries to help them through their difficult time. What follows is the complicated and painful story of the two boys, twins who are starkly different, yet somehow very much the same.

I was surprised to learn during my reading that, although this book is a classic, it was met with a harsh critical reaction. It seems as though many people thought that the characterizations were much too blunt and unwieldy to be artistic, and it was far from the critical success that it's thought as today. I, for one, believe that the characters in this novel are perhaps more relevant and believable in today's society versus how they would have been looked on when the book made its debut in the mid-fifties. It seems to be a novel that has come into its own, character-wise, and may indeed have been ahead of its time.

Steinbeck begins his story with a a very detailed look at the land in the Salinas Valley, and much of the first section of the book explains the area and sets the stage for the drama to come. It's only in the second or third chapter that we first get a look at the people who inhabit this story and find out their origins. Mild mannered Samuel Hamilton is introduced, along with his crowd of a family, and then the action shifts over towards the Trask household, where it remains for many chapters. From the beginning of the chronicling of the Trasks, the biblical symbolism of the Cain and Abel story runs thick throughout the narrative, a theme that will wind its way through the story until its conclusion. In fact, there are several scenes where the characters pick up this thread of symbolism and actively discuss its meanings and portents in regards to their own situations. I found this to be a very impressive feat of the narrative, for the reader and the characters seem to almost be discovering the same ideas and themes together, which lends a heightened relevance to all that is taking place.

As the action moves towards the second half of the story, the narrative begins to focus on the lives of the Trask twins, Cal and Aaron. These boys are beset by conflicting ideas of their futures but share the same questions about the whereabouts of their missing mother. Though Adam attempts to keep them in the dark about Cathy's malignant life and behavior, he can't help but see shades of the woman running through his children's personalities. Here again, various other aspects of the Cain and Abel story come into play within the lives of the Trask children. Through his artistry and juggling of the recurrent themes and symbolism, Steinbeck plunges his readers deep into the heart of what it means to sin and begs us to consider whether the sin of the soul is inherent or acquired. These are questions that plague both the Trask and Hamilton households, and the reader can't help but examine and ponder the evidence that the men so eloquently lay before them.

Here I must discuss Cathy's character. Her story takes up about a fourth of the book and was, I felt, brilliant in its execution. Steinbeck introduces her without much fanfare but states clearly in the narrative that there are some people who are born monsters, people who have no conscience or regret and who seem to bide their time, waiting to unleash all of their pent up hostility on the world when it stands in their way. Cathy, it turns out, is one of these people. She is a vile specimen who cannot even take pleasure in her destruction, for she has no sense of joy. She is like a predatory animal who seeks only to gain the advantage, no matter what the cost is to another. I found her to be shocking and truly one of the most heinous woman I've ever run across in literature. Her evil runs deep into the recesses of her mind and she pours violence from her soul in a flagrant disregard for anyone who is foolish enough to step in her path. I found it very odd that Adam wasn't able to see her as she truly was and, at one point, believed her to be a sainted woman. Charles, on the other hand, was able to see the evil in Cathy because her depravity was mirrored within his own soul and he found her to be a kindred spirit.

At its most basic level, this novel is an epic tale of family, but hidden deep within its tissues are stories of sin and absolution, grief and redemption, and the very difficult struggle between good and evil. Steinbeck tackles all of this in his tale, using his characters' lives as object lessons to his readers and posing his questions to them as they fall deeper and deeper into his story's spell. Among the very typical things that go on in his characters' lives, there are hidden secrets and endless possibilities posed not only by the characters and their predicaments, but by their thoughts and beliefs about themselves and each other. They are multi-faceted creatures, at once wise and naive, worldly yet sheltered, and though they claim to be able to see themselves clearly, they operate under false assumptions of themselves, living in the darkness of their limited understanding.

There's just too much grist in this story for this review to ever be able to communicate it succinctly, and although I feel that I've only scratched the surface, I invite you to delve into this book and plumb its depths with an aim at tasting the heady brew the Steinbeck offers you. It's the story of life, told through a small lens that captures the woes and heartaches of its characters in a way that everyone will understand, and a story that you can peel back layer after layer, exposing both the affirming and disappointing aspects of human nature. I was so glad to have experienced it and to have been able to have taken away such thought provoking messages from it. If you haven't yet experienced this wonderful book, I highly recommend it to you and envy the experience you will have reading it for the first time. A brilliant and beautiful book.

33 comments:

rhapsodyinbooks said...

When we went to Monterey and Salinas for the Steinbeck/wine retreat, they showed the movie for this one night, and I wouldn't watch because I knew it was depressing! And indeed, those who watched (Jim included) found it to be so. Steinbeck is so gritty - not afraid, as you say, to reveal the more disappointing aspects of human nature. And yet it didn't seem to depress *him* - he seems to have had the wonderful quality of loving the humanness of humans!

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I skimmed your review, because I am in the process of listening to the lengthy audio version (wonderful) right now for my Classics Challenge. I plan to supplement me reading with the print version as it is just so wonderfully written.

Steinbeck was truly an amazing writer.

TheBookGirl said...

Wonderful review Heather.

I found this to be the most relatable of the Steinbeck novels that I've read; there is something in this story that everyone probably has experienced in their lives at some point.

This is why I am going to try and read more from my shelves this year. I have tended to get swept up in the new books, and there is so much great literature out there that I haven't read yet.

Mrs Q Book Addict said...

John Steinbeck is one of my favorite writers. I remember reading East of Eden and loving it. It's a lengthly novel, but it never felt long to me. Great review!

Jenny said...

Wow, this sounds like a book that gives a lot to think about. I'm really interested in this whole difference between good and evil and how evil is acquired as well as reading about Cathy. I haven't read a Steinbeck since Grapes of Wrath in high school, but I would be willing to try Steinbeck again. I think I'll definitely go with this one if I do.

Brooke said...

Having just begun my readership of Steinbeck, I look forward to reading this one especially after such an expertly penned review.

When I read Of Mice and Men, I was surprised by how much Steinbeck seems to harbor some intense emotions against his women characters. I wondered if that construct would hold true in his other books and it seems, at least with East of Eden, that it does.

Really terrific review today!

Nymeth said...

I love what Jill said about " loving the humanness of humans". I've only read one Steinbeck, of Mice and Men, and found that to be the case. Depressing seems to be his trademark, though. One day I'll read this!

Wall-to-wall books said...

I love John Steinbeck! But I never did read this one.
My Favorite is "Of Mice and Men" and have read it several times. I also like the short stories - "The Pearl" and "The Red Pony".

Great review!

Andi said...

I've had spotty luck with Steinbeck over the years (literally wanted to throw Of Mice and Men UNDER a garbage truck), but I started reading East of Eden years ago, and it was a very different experience. I still have it stashed in a box somewhere and I WILL read it! i'm considering making it one of my 7 classics for A Classics Challenge this year.

Thanks for the thoughtful review, always, Heather!

Wendy said...

What a beautiful review of this book, Heather. Steinbeck is one of my favorite authors and I also loved this classic. You might be interested in the nonfiction book Steinbeck: A Life in Letters which I read last year and loved. I especially enjoyed the parts of that book where Steinbeck writes about his works in progress. He was very hard on himself as a writer - a bit of a perfectionist.

Tracy said...

I loved this book - we read it for bookclub a few months ago, and I'd never read anything by this author before. Yes, Cathy Ames really is an incredible creation - and one based on Steinbeck's ex-wife! (very loosely, I hope!). I'll certainly be reading more Steinbeck, eventually.

Sandy Nawrot said...

It is so hard to review this book isn't it? But you did a fantastic job. It has so many layers, so many emotions. When I finished it though, I was suffering from a malaise. Ugh, the horridness of humans. So much ugliness. I haven't seen the movie. Not sure I could handle it! Steinbeck is a master though.

Aarti said...

How funny we both posted on Steinbeck today, and that you reviewed the book that everyone always talks about as so amazing!

I like what you said about the characters being even more relevant in our world today than they perhaps were when the book was written. That always makes authors seem so prescient, doesn't it? And almost makes you think that you could really understand today and all its issues if you just read the right books...

bermudaonion said...

Wow, it seems this book was before its time. I don't think I've ever read Steinback, but it sounds like I need to.

Vasilly said...

This is one of my favorite books of all-time and I'm so glad you enjoyed it.

Kailana said...

I really need to read this. I have only read Of Mice and Men, but it has been a while even since I read that.

Heather @ Book Addiction said...

This book is SO hard to review but you certainly did it justice, Heather! East of Eden is one of my absolute favorites and I'm so glad you loved it too.

Stacy at A Novel Source said...

i want to read this book and can't believe i haven't yet in my 39 years! how did i get out of reading it in high school and college? After reading your review I definitely want to rush right out and buy it - I've been in a reading slump lately and need a shot of excellent literature to bring me back. thank you for sharing your most eloquent thoughts on East of Eden

softdrink said...

Fabulous review! I was surprised when I read this how much I liked it (I think the size and its reputation as a classic intimidated me). And Cathy's character was just brilliant...she's just so bad. I really need to get up to Salinas to visit the National Steinbeck Center...it's only a couple of hours away.

Trisha said...

I got this from another blogger for Christmas in 2010, but I still haven't read it. Bad me.

Jenners said...

I must confess that I've never read it but this review made me want to try it. I supect I would feel much the same way you did. Great reivew … as always. Your enthusiasm just shone through.

Alison's Book Marks said...

EAST OF EDEN was the book that made me fall in love with the written word. Steinbeck was a master, certainly ahead of his time. My favorite book of all time, I have never attempted to review EoE, no matter how many times I've read It, but you managed it beautifully! Thank you, you may have just inspired me to pick it up yet again!

Suko said...

Your review is also brilliant, Zibilee. Steinbeck was a great writer, and one of my favorites. Thank you as usual for an in-depth review.

Kathy said...

Heather, I absolutely loved your review of this book. I read it a million years ago and can still remember certain parts of it vividly even now. Thinking I should reread, Steinbeck is truly a great American author.

Harvee said...

The movie and the book were heartbreaking. But very worthwhile.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

Very interesting discussion of 'nature vs. nurture' (or simply = nature!) when it comes to Cathy. I've been mulling over that thread in a number of books I've read lately.

Heather, I have no recollection of this book, although I'd swear I read it ages ago. Thanks for bringing it back to me, and to perhaps piquing my interest in a re-read -- you've touched on so many great topics for discussion!

Darlene said...

This is one of my favorite novels of all time. I've read it three times now and I wish I could experience it for the first time again. Steinbeck takes you so completely into the lived of all these people. You despise Cathy and you feel for the boys and the struggles they have. The underlying theme of good and evil throughout the book was so well done. Reading your review makes me want to read it again even though I've read it so many times already.

A note on the movie though - it's not my favorite. They skip a lot of the book and for me it's just missing too much. I think if they would now make this book into a mini series it would be fantastic.

Great review Heather!

moshimoshinekobookreview said...

I'm looking forward to reading this sometime next year (ages, I know), but Steinbeck had a faithful reader in me from the time I read his Nobel Prize winning and lesser known work To A God Unknown - it was just such a strange mix that book. Anyway, really enjoyed your review!

Ti said...

You did an amazing job with this review. It's one of my favorite books and I wouldn't even know where to start if I had to review it.

As always, grit suits me so I had no trouble with the themes in this one or the depressing nature of the story itself. It was the first time I truly felt as if I knew evil, in the form of Cathy. I've never come across a character as evil as her. Although the gal in A Reliable Wife came close.

Marg said...

I read this back when Oprah had her Classics bookclub and was really surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Then again, that actually seems to be my reaction whenever I read a classic so you think that I would be less surprised. I don't often reread but I could see myself rereading this.

Jules said...

I keep meaning to read some more of this authors works, this looks like a good place to start. By the looks of it, the author has created a very well thought cast of characters and plot.
Excellent review thanks for sharing, and adding on to the ever growing TBR list.

Amy said...

Wow, this is a fantastic review, Heather and at your urging I will be reading this book soon. I don't know why or how but I am sorely deficient in Steinbeck. I had classes in which his books weren't read and never picked them up myself. I don't know why. Thank you for reviewing this book and recommending it.

I was curious did you find the first section, which you said was about the land and the area slow or tedious at all?

Steph said...

I have always felt a bit embarrassed that I've not read The Grapes of Wrath... but at least I have read this book, and I really did love it. Even though I normally abhor chunksters, this one just swept me away and kept me absorbed until the very end. So moving and thoughtful, I think it's an example of Steinbeck at his very best.

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