A saga of the Hamilton and Trask families living in the Salinas valley in the early twentieth century, East of Eden follows the same two families over several generations as they seem destined to re-enact the tales from Genesis. Generations of brothers bicker over who their father loves more, there's much sibling rivalry and the sin of Eve features heavily. The story features many characters but focuses on three main protagonists; Samuel Hamilton, a patriach of the community, Adam Trask, an idealist and his son, Cal Trask, who seems destined to take Cain's role but struggles against it.
East of Eden is a really hard book to write a plot summary for. Although a lot happens in the course of the novel, it is basically a 600+ page study of the good and evil in human nature. And I loved it. I found it to be quite slow starting and the sparse, straight-forward style that Steinbeck uses took a bit of getting used to, but as soon as Cathy appeared I was hooked. Had I not been working, I would have flown right through this book in a matter of days as there was something about it that was utterly gripping. I think it might have been the realism and the unadorned way that Steinbeck writes about life.
What I got out of East of Eden is that life is hard, and that everyone has a bit of good and evil in them. Steinbeck plays around with creating purely good (Aron) and bad (Cathy) characters and retelling the biblical story straightforwardly but Cal is by far the most complex and interesting character. He's desperate for his father's love but senses (correctly) that his father prefers the idealistic and sensitive Aron over him. This twists him up inside and makes him bitter and it seems that Cal is set on the path of evil. But Steinbeck makes him more complex than that; we see Cal fighting against his more negative impulses and the choices that he makes every day about what kind of person he wants to be. And I could really relate to that as this is what life is like; we all have the potential to do good or bad things and when it comes down to it, we all get to choose the kind of person that we want to be.
Although the writing style did take a bit of getting used to (particularly for someone who loves Victorian classics), I did end up enjoying it. Steinbeck writes very simply and the only emotions you get are the ones that you can infer from the way the characters respond to events. The characterisation is the best part of the novel; the only character that didn't feel completely realistic was Cathy, and she was just so much fun to read about and added so much to the plot that it didn't matter at all that she was all bad.
East of Eden was a book that grew on me as I read it. It's completely different from the classics I usually choose and I wasn't sure that I liked it at first. But the more I read it, the more I got caught up in it and I closed the final page very much impressed and absolutely determined to seek out more Steinbeck in the near future.
Source: Borrowed my husband's copy
First Published: 1952
Edition Read: Penguin Classics, 2000
Score: 4.5 out of 5
Classics Club: Book 17/72
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