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Back to the Classics #2 – East of Eden

East of Eden

A 20th Century Classic

The Salinas Valley is in Northern California. It is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the center until it falls at last into Monterey Bay.

I was not expecting to love this as much as I did.

I always find it difficult to review the classics.  I partially feel like everything has been said that there is to say about them.  I also feel like my reviews aren’t “deep” or critical enough to really say anything of value.  But I’ll give it a go anyway.

I didn’t have a great impression of John Steinbeck going into this.  My mum had read Grapes of Wrath and absolutely loathed it,  which coloured my opinion of him somewhat.  Then I considered reading Of Mice and Men, admittedly because it’s short, but spoiled myself for it and was put off entirely, not because of the fact that I was spoiled, but because of the content of the spoilers – what happens in that book made me feel like he was writing misery for misery’s sake and I’m totally turned off by that.  However, Craig had read East of Eden and thought I would enjoy it, so I put it on my list of things to give a go this year.

I’m so glad I did.  If you don’t already know, East of Eden chronicles the lives of two families in a remote part of California (although one of them does not begin there) and how their lives unfold over the course of two or so generations.  As per the title, the book is chock full of biblical allegory, and the characters inner lives are often depicted in terms of a struggle between the good and evil inside them, and whether these qualities are inherent and indefatigable, or somewhat learned and malleable.

Something about this story won me over entirely.  It has its problems – the female characters are not as well drawn as the male.  Cathy, as much as I enjoyed her wickedness, is a complete caricature of a particular kind of evil woman that seems to be a trope in literature, especially that written by men.  I don’t really go into a lot of classic literature by men expecting to find realistic or fair depictions of women – and certainly the other women in this were better, despite being a little one-dimensional.  I’m glad Cathy was in the book, and I appreciate both some of the reasoning behind her actions, and the thematic role that she is intended to take in proceedings, I just wish she had been given even a touch more light and shade.

There are, however, some excellently drawn characters in here.  I was given a very clear picture of Sam Hamilton and his sprawling Irish family. I’m glad they were in the book – as someone from an Irish Catholic background they were a great “anchor” for me in a tale that largely takes place in a time and location with which I am not terribly familiar.  His story was so lovingly detailed, and I really felt invested in the direction that it takes.  The Trask family were sometimes harder to get along with, but I felt by the time Caleb and Aron were older their story really came into its own and the last hundred pages had me absolutely gripped.  I was an emotional mess by the end!

The thing you have to accept going into this book is that the actual events of the story are somewhat unrealistic, and there definitely is a slight feeling of Steinbeck writing his characters to fit the overarching theme of the narrative, but to my mind this doesn’t stop the reader becoming emotionally invested in this story.  I can imagine for some people it might spoil the enjoyment, but I felt that I once I acknowledged this was happening, I could concentrate on the other aspects of the novel with that sort of held in the back of my mind.

I would heartily recommend this book.  I can see myself revisiting it time and again, and I’ll definitely be trying some other Steinbeck on the basis of my enjoyment of this (though I’m still not going to read OMaM!)  I give East of Eden ten out of ten.