on 23 August 2001
East of Eden, one of Steinbeck's last and longest books, is an incredible retelling of both the Fall of Man and the story of Cain and Abel, but to describe it simply as this would be to limit it. As in his other works, Steinbeck's love of the American country is evident throughout the book, from the first chapter celebrating the beauty of the Salinas valley (the scene for most of the book's action) to the end. Though the story is of two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons, the Hamiltons quickly take a back seat. The first half of the book studies the first generation of Trasks - the father Cyrus and sons Adam and Charles, and then in the second turns to Adam's own family - his wife Cathy (described by Steinbeck as a 'monster) and sons Aron and Cal. The allegory is beautiful, the characters original and totally believable, and, if the religious tie-ins are a bit heavy-handed they are still thought provoking and elegantly written. I think this is a great book for someone who has never read Steinbeck before (it's much easier to get into than 'the Grapes of Wrath') and you could do worse than check out the Elia Kazan movie version, with James Dean as Cal.
on 1 August 2005
I cannot seem to put down in words the depth and power of the effect that this book had on me. I have read many a book which I would put in a list of favourites or best-evers but I can undoubtedly say that this is the best and most stunning book I have ever read, and am likely to read. I picked it up and it swallowed me whole - laid against a background of America during the immense social and technological evolution between civil and world wars (it is as much an interesting education in the effects of such historical events in the small town Deep South) is a story so intricate and beautiful, at once tender and brutal, that manages to go through every single aspect of human life and experience - from birth to death, inherent evil and good, and the battle of personal morality. This is a true epic, in sheer size and scope as in the freshness of the stunning lyrical style. I was both elated and devastated, and hated having to finish it.
on 5 March 2008
You know those phases you go through when the novels you read are enjoyable enough at the time but a few days later you've more or less forgotten them? I was going through one of those phases and moaned about it to the lady at the library desk. She asked if I had read much Steinbeck. I replied that I had read a few at secondary school, some 35 years ago.
And so I borrowed East of Eden on her recommendation, and absolutely loved it. It's a huge, chunky, sprawling, messy epic (which incidentally is not as popular with U.S Amazon reviewers as it is here) spanning generations. Other reviewers have outlined the plot so I won't repeat it. I know part of the novel was made into a film, but I think it would make a wonderful, lengthy, slightly soapy TV drama series. It has that feel to it.
Steinbeck's writing style has been criticised, and it is true that in places it feels rather clumsy and laboured. On the other hand, in places it is elegant and poetic, especially in the descriptions of nature. However, for me, the power of Steinbeck's storytelling abilities and vivid characterisation more than compensated for any faults in the quality of the writing.
It's the perfect antidote to flimsy, insubstantial novels and writing and I wholeheartedly recommend it.
on 27 July 2006
East of Eden is an epic, powerful book of hope, despair, suffering and permission for humanity to fulfill it's potential. This may sound dramatic but East of Eden is one of the most thoughtful books I have ever read. The level of depth that is so subtly put into the book has a profound impact on the reader: the idiosyncraties of life, which we so often take for being individual to ourselves are really vividly shown to be universal. The book isn't so much a novel but a treatise on human nature and a philosophy for life. This is a big claim so I'll try and justify it. But really, this is a book that needs to be experienced rather than read so any review is only a shallow representation.
It takes a novelist of Steinbeck's skill to pull the deep philosophising off in a non-condensending or patronising manner. Yet, he handles the book beautifully, the philosophy comes from two very strong and intriging characters, Samuel and Lee, both outsiders beloved by those close to them who are able to advise the other characters and, by proxy, the reader too. Through these characters' strong voices, the other actors are guided through their lives, the stregth of hope that they give out is the difference between life and death for some characters. The ideas of the book are obvious when read but stay with the reader and offer a simple approach to a lives beset by complications - put simply, you may do what you want in life, you learn for yourself and although help and strength may be offered by other people, ultimately you are responsible for your own life. And for whether you are satisfied when death takes you.
The book is strong in many areas, such as the depth of knowledge gained about American history and the American psyche, the deep love shown to its people and the strong, interesting characters, shown extra love in their crafting because many are based on Steinbeck's own family. However the level of detail in the book slows down the narrative tremendously: this isn't a novel that can be rushed through without missing the crux of the book; the contemplative tone means that it will always be a slow read. The plot is also quite simplistic and easily predictable. It could be reduced to a few lines but in doing so the fine details and love that is so apparent in the book would be lost. The plot is secondary to the environment, characters and, above all, to the ideas of the book.
If this type of book sounds intriging to you, please buy or borrow it quickly, as it will be a book that you won't forget for a long time and offers the reader a lot. Despite the heaviness of the topics and some of the vindictiveness shown by some characters, the book leaves the reader in hope rather than despair by the end. Even if it doesn't sound appealing and the size of the book puts you off you should try this book. It is a rare masterpiece and one which will be as relevant in 100 years as it is now with much wisdom on offer to any reader, regardless of their world experiences.
on 2 April 2005
"East of Eden" is one of John Steinbeck's most fascinating and disturbing novels; a tale of envy, conflict and betrayal between two generations of brothers - Adam and Charles Trask, and Adam's twin sons, Aron and Caleb. The novel spans the period between the American Civil War and the end of World War I. Adam Trask grew up with his brother, Charles, on a farm in Connecticut. Their father clearly favored gentle Adam throughout their lives, leaving Charles, the wilder and more violent of the two boys, bitter and envious. Charles loved his father and brother deeply, but could never elicit the old man's affection. The jealousy he felt towards Adam gnawed at him constantly, and he finally left home to join the army. The brothers did not see each other for many years. Whenever Charles came home they argued relentlessly. And again Charles would go away. Finally, their father died, leaving both sons a fortune.
Cathy Ames, a narcissistic, manipulative girl with few redeeming characteristics, plays a profoundly symbolic role in this Steinbeck novel. When she showed up at the Trask home one evening, beaten and close to death, Adam nursed her back to health. Gulled by Cathy's seeming vulnerability and beauty, he married her. She got him drunk on their wedding night, and while he slept, she was intimate with Charles. Adam bought some land outside of Salinas, California, and moved there with his unwilling wife. He wanted to create an Eden for his Eve. Pregnant, and miserable at the thought of becoming a mother, Cathy stayed in Salinas long enough to give birth to fraternal twins, Aron and Caleb. Soon after their birth, Cathy abandoned her family, shooting her husband in the chest before exiting. Adam was so disturbed by the loss of his wife that he wanted little to do with his sons. The boys were raised by Lee, an Asian hired hand, who cared for them as his own. Samuel Hamilton, a neighbor and local philosopher, visited Adam frequently, attempting to jolt him out of his depression. On one occasion the two men discussed the biblical story of Cain and Able, Mr. Steinbeck's metaphor for this novel.
Like their father and uncle, the twins constantly vie for their father's attention. Aron meets a young woman at school and becomes deeply attached to her. She is the first woman to show him affection. Caleb is beside himself with jealousy...and longing.
The ensuing conflicts, and unnecessary alienation, between Aron and Caleb are heartbreaking. There is a painful scene when Adam repeats history, and tells Caleb, in spite of all the young man's efforts to please, that he should be more like his brother. The novel, however, does ends on a note of hope and redemption.
I don't think Steinbeck's main characters are as fully developed, or as complex, as they could be because he is so intent on drawing similarities between them and their Biblical counterparts. In his retelling of the Cain and Abel story, Adam, Charles, Cathy, Aron and Caleb, are forced to reenact the ancient drama of exile from Eden. However the Biblical references are interesting, and the plot and subplots are tension-filled and moving. His secondary characters, Lee, Samuel, Abra, are beautifully drawn, realistic portraits of believable people. Their stories, histories and motives, are fascinating and add much to this deeply moving masterpiece by John Steinbeck.
on 8 February 2008
At around 500 pages, this is quite a big read. As things turn out, it paces itself nicely. Steinbeck's delivery is thoughtful and thought-provoking. He takes all the time he needs to paint the scenery and develop each set of characters. This is accomplished quite beautifully in places. Then the tempo can quicken and the reader feels a sense of anticipation - or foreboding when the ruthless Cathy/Kate is involved. She is clinical and calculating, damaged and damaging. Other characters range from unfulfilled dreamers to arch-pragmatists. I found this book totally absorbing, even more than the excellent Grapes of Wrath, and am now into my next Steinbeck: Cannery Row. I have a strong feeling it won't be the last!
EoE is the story of three generations of a family ( the Trasks ). It's set against the backdrop of the growth and development of America as a nation - taking in the Civil War ( in the distance ), the conquest of Native Americans and finally the First World War. The story starts in the East but mostly unfolds in California's Salinas valley - mirroring the great push west. Finally in the background we hear the sound of society moving from agriculture to industry.
It's a modern day telling of one of the oldest stories in the world - that of Cain and Abel - which is retold twice really. You can view the book as simply a great story well told, or a philosophical examination of the nature of destiny and the extent to which a man may truly make his own life. The great thing is that the book rises to meet the needs of the reader - you don't having to consider it as a moral treatise or an expansion of a 'great theme' but if you so wish you may.
The simple wisdom of the book is one of its great strengths. For example
"And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way" - this amongst the first description we have of the Salinas valley.
"And of course they were descended from the ancient kings of Ireland, as every Irishman is" - this of old Sam Hamilton ( see later ).
Another aspect of its appeal is the way it paints the life of the time - e.g. the matter of fact discussion of brothels, and the utterly brilliant description of a human birth - certainly the best I've ever read.
Finally there is the dark charm of Cathy - one of the central characters. For me she is one of the most memorable characters in fiction. Human, but with no warmth inside we can see how a person with no 'gene for goodness' might act. The triumph is the lack of histrionics or sensation. She wrecks lives and why - well 'there are no reasons' and what could be darker than that.
We should not forget the excellent cast of characters - Sam Hamilton, the everyman patriach, and Lee the sagelike manservant, Abra the girl struggling with being put on a pedestal, Joe who 'just needs the breaks' and many more.
I really can't recommend this book enough and believe it to be a magnificent triumph.
on 25 January 2009
Many think that GRAPES OF WRATH is Steinbeck's best work. Not so. EAST OF EDEN is by far the greater book. With so many parallels to the bible and the "good vs evil" themes, it is no wonder this book is of epic proportions and has lasted for so long. The movie is also great, directed by Elia Kazan.
But what makes EDEN so different from other books are these reasons: It is semi-autobiographical, speaks from the heart, and is raw and moving; it is a parallel story to Cain and Abel in the Bible, and the many biblical threads that run through it are too numerous to mention; it is a classic tale of good and evil; and last but not least, it is perfectly written with great pacing, great writing, and a plot that has form and finesse. The story of two families--the Trasks and the Hamiltons, there are also shades of Romeo and Juilet, though not in the literal sense; more so in the waring sense.
For me, the most powerful aspect of the novel comes where the son of Cathy--the "madam" of a brothel--makes the decision that he "doesn't want to be bad." Steinbeck plays with the idea that evil may be inherited, and certainly that it is helped along by environment. The back stories in the book are equally as riveting and while this is not a short read, it is worth your while.
If you're new to Steinbeck, while this novel is a good place to start, I might recommend OF MICE AND MEN as a better "first" for anyone not familiar with this American writer.
on 7 March 2003
John Steinbeck's EAST OF EDEN was not well received by critics when it debuted in the 1950s, and although passing years have seen several re-evaluations it is still reguarded as secondary to the likes of GRAPES OF WRATH and OF MICE AND MEN. It is true that the novel is flawed: it is a great big rambling thing crammed with obvious allegory, metaphor, and allusion, loosely structured to say the least. And yet, in a odd sort of way, the very rambling, the looseness, the obviousness of the work gives it a tremendous grandeur that Steinbeck's more tightly structured work lacks. The novel is as broad and vulgar and lively and provocative as the America it describes--and it is my favorite of Steinbeck's fiction.
Any one who comes to the novel from the famous film adaptation starring James Dean will be surprized, for the roots of the novel run much deeper than the film, which is based only on perhaps a third of the novel. This is not so much the story of brothers Aaron and Caleb Trask as it is the story of their parents, Adam Trask and Catherine Ames. And in "Cathy" Ames, Steinbeck creates one of the darkest characters in all of 20th Century American Literature, a creature devoid of virtually anything recognizable as human emotion. Fleeing from a past that includes murder, perversion, blackmail, and prostitution, Cathy assumes an angelic demeanor and lures the emotionally needy Adam Trask into love and marriage. And when she no longer requires his protection... she destroys him.
It is the stuff of classic melodrama, but in Steinbeck's hands it becomes more than melodrama; it becomes a novel that alternately reads at leisurely pace and then suddenly reads with the speed of a whirlwind, a tale that forces us to consider the nature of good and evil and the legacies we may leave for later generations. For Adam and Cathy have two sons, and in the wake of their tragedy they will be left to fight out issues of moral choices, right and wrong, and love and hate in the sun-drenched Salinas Valley of California, the "golden west" of the "new world" as it rushes headlong into the modern age. It is a novel epic in history, geography, and morality.
Some will find the novel's constant reference to the story of Cain and Able more than a little obvious; others will find it too meandering, filled with too many side-issues and minor subplots. Still others may be put off by the very slow way in which the novel gathers itself during its first hundred or so pages. But once the pieces are in place, Steinbeck suddenly pulls the threads together to create one of the most remarkable tapestries in American letters--a tapestry that has no clearcut boundaries and that, for all its simplistic tone, offers little in the way of simplistic answers to the issues it raises. Flawed, yes, but a great novel by a master of the form, so great that its flaws become intrinsic to its virtues. Strongly recommended.
on 22 October 2009
I'd read a few Steinbeck books prior to this, including Grapes of Wrath which is often referred to as his masterpiece.
In my opinion this is better than Grapes of Wrath and is his most thoughtful, impacting story which will continue to transcend times and places forever. The characters were even more vivid than in his other books, and that is really saying something. The reader will find a bit of themselves - good and bad - in many of them.
I'm not a book worm and long books generally take me effort, but apart from the first third dragging very slightly, I tore through it, so it must have been a great story. The weight of the book only really dawned on me in the last quarter, but it's real lump in the throat stuff, when it does.
My favourite book of all time. (Out of maybe 20).