Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Review: East of Eden

East of Eden by John Steinbeck
5 stars

Summary (from the Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature): It is a symbolic recreation of the biblical story of Cain and Abel woven into a history of California's Salinas Valley. . . Spanning the period between the American Civil War and the end of World War I, the novel highlights the conflicts of two generations of brothers; the first being the kind, gentle Adam Trask and his wild brother Charles. Adam eventually marries Cathy Ames, an evil, manipulative, and beautiful prostitute; she betrays him, joining Charles on the very night of their wedding. Later, after giving birth to twin boys, she shoots Adam and leaves him to return to her former profession. In the shadow of this heritage Adam raises their sons, the fair-haired, winning, yet intractable Aron, and the dark, clever Caleb. This second generation of brothers vie for their father's approval. In bitterness Caleb reveals the truth about their mother to Aron, who then joins the army and is killed in France.

First line: "The Salinas Valley is in Northern California."

My thoughts: This is one of my husband's favourite books of all time, and I'd been meaning to read it since we met. While I didn't finish it in time, the Something About Me Challenge spurred me to finally pick it up. And I was glad I did, we ended up talking about it as I was reading it. I think we need to read more of the same books, it was great fun! :)

Wow. In the dedication, Steinbeck descibes the book as a box "Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full. Pain and excitement are in it, and feeling good or bad and evil thoughts and good thoughts - the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation. . . And still the box is not full."

And it really is filled to the brim. At first I wasn't sure I was going to be able to manage it - the first chapter is a long description of the Salinas Valley and I've never been one for big long nature descriptions. And as I read further, I couldn't figure out how all of the threads were going to connect. But connect they do! And Steinbeck was right, the number of themes in the book are amazing - good and evil, normal and abnormal, rich and poor, fathers and sons, brothers, family, identity. . . All set against the recurring backdrop of the Cain and Abel story.

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. My favourite was the one about Steinbeck's grandmother going up in an army plane (as a reward for selling bonds) and being sure she was going to die, but wanting to encourage the pilot, so she kept giving him the thumbs-up every time he inaudibly asked if she wanted to do another trick or loop. She stayed in bed for 2 days after landing safely, but she wasn't going to let the pilot be afraid. That had nothing to do with the Trasks and only vaguely to do with the Hamiltons, but it was a marvelous mini-story.

I think this is a book one could read over and over again and still not take in everything it has to say.

Favourite characters: I loved Lee, the Trasks' Chinese cook who basically raises the boys and is a counsellor/caretaker/brother to Adam. He was wise and funny and knew the best way to help in any situation. I think everyone could use a Lee in their life!

I also loved Samuel Hamilton, based on Steinbeck's grandfather. Though he settled on a ranch with very poor soil and was never wealthy, he and his wife Liza raised their family of 9 children. He was an inventor (the actual Samuel held 3 patents on farm machinery), a dreamer, and a would-be scholar, filled with endless curiosity.

Memorable passage:
It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure to the world.

We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.


Julie said...

I tried to read Of Mice and Men years ago and couldn't get into it, so I've steered clear of Steinbeck but now I'm wondering if I should pick up East of Eden. :)

Anonymous said...

I read East of Eden years ago and really enjoyed it (although forgot most of the plot by now).

Jill said...

This is a classic I have never read. It has gotten rave reviews by our online friends. I will have to check it out some day...

=) Jill

tinylittlelibrarian said...

Julie - It's definitely a biiiig book and it took some work, but I found it was worth it. Although I also rather liked Of Mice and Men, at least when I had to read it back in high school.

Stephanie - it has a lot of plot to forget! :)

Jill - I hope you'll give it a try. But it's definitely something you have to have some time for. :)

Anonymous said...

I read East of Eden when Oprah came back with her book club. It was a coincidence really because I had just decided to broaden my horizons away from the who-dun-it mysteries. I was flipping thru channels and saw Oprah pick this book (and I normally don't watch Oprah). So I saw it as some sort of sign and bought it that day! I absolutely loved it! I agree that I could use a little Lee in my life as well.