John Steinbeck is possibly my all-time favorite author. I’ve never been disappointed by anything I’ve read by him. In fact, his books have been some of the most powerful and memorable reading experiences of my life. I still remember reading Of Mice and Men and The Pearl for the first time. Steinbeck’s prose inspires me and excites me in a way that very few others can.
I’d started reading East of Eden a few years ago, at the end of the summer, but didn’t finish it because it was a library book and I had to go back to school and then got too caught up in schoolwork to pick it back up. I’m so glad I came back to it, though–it’s an incredible novel.
The story is best described as sprawling, covering decades of time and dozens of characters and multiple complex themes. The main focus is on the Trask family, namely Adam Trask, who we meet as a child. His rivalry with his brother, Charles, causes significant tension in their relationship; this tension only worsens when a destructive, dangerous woman named Cathy enters their lives. His relationship with Cathy, and the lives of their twin sons, Aron and Cal, are at the center of the novel.
It’s difficult to give much of a plot description without giving away too much, so my apologies if this summary seems vague and simplistic. Let me just say that it’s significantly more complex than that.
The novel is about the relationships between people, specifically within families; Steinbeck focuses a lot on the role of personal choice, and the ways in which people carry out the legacies of their ancestors. These themes are really interesting, although they become a bit heavy-handed at times. The biggest problem I had with this novel was Steinbeck’s tendency to ramble; I much preferred it when he let the characters and their actions speak for themselves, rather than using them as mouthpieces to discuss his themes and beliefs. These moments weighed down the plot to the point where I had to skim past them at times. I also had a bit of a problem with the way Steinbeck portrays women–there’s definitely a virgin/whore dichotomy at play here, and all of the (few) women portrayed are either wholly good or purely evil. Not a lot of grey area, and this really bothered me.
But overall, I really didn’t find that this affected my overall enjoyment too much. I just love Steinbeck’s prose so much! He’s just such a master of language, especially in his descriptions of the California landscape. He really places you into the middle of his scenes, so much so that you feel like you’re there. He also can write truly compelling, unique characters who you sympathize with even as you disdain them. It’s a fine line to walk, but he balances his characters nicely. And apart from the woman issue mentioned above, the rest of his characters are pretty three-dimensional and complex; there’s less of a black-and-white approach to his male characters (again, completely problematic, but not so much that it ruined the book for me).
This is a classic, and, in my opinion, one of Steinbeck’s best works. If you’re a fan of his, I’d definitely recommend reading this one. Even if you’re not, this book is as good a place as any to start.