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.