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East of Eden
East of Eden - John Steinbeck
Member Name: historywitch
East of Eden - John Steinbeck
Advantages: Extremely well written, great story
Disadvantages: Its quite a large book!
Having an imminent OU essay deadline looming my need for displacement activity is greatly enhanced and I find myself looking for things that will prevent me from actually having to sit down and write the thing (my house has never looked so clean!). So when my hand lighted on this satisfyingly bulky book on my bookshelves I sat down at once to fill my mind with something other than the development of the categorical self. Disappointingly this is an excellent book and I managed to finish it in only two days, leaving me plenty of time to work on my assignment.
Born in the Salinas Valley in California (also the setting for this book), John Steinbeck is probably most famous for ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, a novel set in Depression-era America. Having read and wept over it, I was understandably reluctant to immediately start another Steinbeck so this one was put away on my shelves until I had pulled myself together a bit more. Steinbeck excels in gritty realism, sometimes shocking and disturbing but written in such a way that you find yourself absorbed in his books and are reluctant to leave the familiar characters he describes.
East of Eden focuses on the stories of two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons, living in the Salinas Valley. Adam has a brother called Charles, with whom he has a very difficult relationship akin to that of Cain and Abel (the dominant theme of the book), both of them fighting for their father’s love. When Adam marries the frankly terrifying Cathy and they move to California the focus switches onto Adam’s twin boys Caleb and Aron (look at that…another C&A) who have a similarly fraught relationship, ultimately leading to tragedy. Meanwhile we are introduced to the large Hamilton family and most particularly to Sam, whose educated and literate musings on life encourage and enlighten those around him. Whilst the families are not intertwined in the literal sense that the back blurb of the book suggests i.e. through love, blood or marriage, their lives continually overlap and they all form the backdrop against which the action is played.
It is an interesting look into the world of turn of the century America, with its occasional skirmishes with Indians, the hobos who travelled across the country (Adam becomes one for a time) and the settling and industrialisation of California. In addition we get a glimpse into the life of the Chinese in America through Adam’s manservant Lee, an educated man who drops his ‘pidgin’ English to talk about philosophy with Adam and Sam. We also visit the darker worlds of the brothels as we follow Cathy, a dangerous woman born without the ‘gene of goodness’, whose lack of emotion and empathy creates a memorable and threatening character in our minds.
This book held my attention completely for several days, it was always by my side so I could pick it up and read a few more pages whenever I had a free minute. For two days I lived and breathed the Salinas Valley and the lives of the Trasks and the Hamiltons, leaving me totally bereft when I finally finished the book. On one level it is an interesting interpretation of the traditional Cain and Abel story, but on another it is a major investigation into the American way of life and a thought-provoking novel about the nature of families and relationships. There is a lot of detail in this book, a lot of information and quite a bit of philosophy, but it is all presented in manageable chunks, rarely more than a few pages long, all of it adding something extra to the main threads of the story. An Amazon reviewer (Mr D. Drabble) said of this book that “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.”, which sums up the feeling of this book much better than I could (still thinking about the categorical self, having taken a break from the essay!).
The characters are ultimately human in their failings and mistakes, but are beautifully drawn and brought to life by Steinbeck. Cathy in particular sent a shiver up my spine whenever I read about her, she possesses so much potential for wrongdoing and so few moral or ethical guidelines that her terrible acts come as somewhat of a relief as we are released from the building sense of tension and unpredictability that surrounds her. When she planning or executing one of her miserable plans you feel as if you can breathe as her attention has been taken away from the characters that we have developed a warm affection for. Sam and Lee’s gentle philosophising and Adam’s turbulent relationships with those he loves remove some of Cathy’s oppressive presence, but she lurks, unseen, behind every page.
Steinbeck has created a book that is easy to read, easy to follow and easy to understand on every level, but for those that care for look for it there is a lot more to this novel. It has great depth and great simplicity and I would thoroughly recommend it.
***Price and Stockists***
I would imagine most bookshops would have a copy or two of this book on their shelves but I went for Amazon as usual.
The East of Eden (Steinbeck Essentials) with its funky arty cover is £5.99 on Amazon (RRP £9.39). ISBN: 0140292942
Penguin Modern Classics version is £6.49 (RRP £11.74). ISBN: 0141185074
Summary: Immerse yourself