Steinbeck. I seem to have fallen deeply, madly, hopelessly in love with the man. After swooning my way through The Grapes of Wrath, I didn’t think it would be possible to love one of his other books even more. But ohhhh, it’s possible alright.
East of Eden initially got my attention when it was chosen as an Oprah’s Book Club selection back in 2003 (make of that statement what you will). I didn’t read it at the time, but that’s probably when it first went on my, “hmmm, maybe one day” list. Years went by, and I eventually chanced upon the Penguin centennial edition at a library sale in New York. I immediately snatched it right up, but the book sat on my shelves for about four more years before I finally picked it up.
I kind of hate myself for ignoring such a glorious book that was right on my shelf for all these years. Because wow. Just wow.
Originally published in 1952, and reveling in the themes of good and evil, East of Eden is a modern retelling of the biblical story of Cain and Abel. The story revolves around two generations and two sets of brothers, first Charles and Adam Trask, then later Adam’s two sons, Caleb and Aron. Forever linking the two generations of Trask men is a woman so broken and evil that she just may be my favorite literary villain of all time. Cathy Ames seemed to have emerged from nowhere one day at Charles and Adam’s doorstep. Though she eventually gains Adam’s trust and later becomes his wife, her mysterious past remains opaque at all times. It isn’t until Adam moves his pregnant wife across the country to settle in California’s Salinas valley that her true nature is revealed.
It’s unusual for me to so readily accept the Woman Who Brings About the Fall of Man archetype, but considering how this book is based on the Bible, I had no problem accepting Adam Trask as an innocent who is pushed from his Eden, Cathy Ames as a trumped up Eve, and their two children as the highly conflicted Cain and Abel. Lending astonishing nuance to all of the archetypes were my other two favorite characters in the book: the wise Samuel Hamilton, and a Chinese American man named Lee who consciously embraces and defies society’s stereotypes of him as he sees fit.
One of the things I love most about Steinbeck’s work is its timelessness. True, East of Eden is written in a specific time period that dates the book. But the musings of his characters retain a relevance appropriate even by today’s standards:
The split second has been growing more and more important to us. And as human activities become more and more intermeshed and integrated, the split tenth of a second will emerge, and then a new name must be made for the split hundreth, until one day, although I don’t believe it, we’ll say, “Oh, the hell with it. What’s wrong with an hour?” But it isn’t silly, this preoccupation with small time units. One thing late or early can disrupt everything around it, and the disturbance runs outward in bands like the waves from a dropped stone in a quiet pool.
There are moments in the book when Steinbeck gives in to flowery description, but for the most part, his prose is spare and straightforward. Since it’s a retelling of a well-known story, one might think they know how everything is going to turn out. To a certain extent that holds true, but the execution of this retelling remains gripping to the very last page. Simply put, it’s a masterpiece that I look forward to revisiting repeatedly in the coming years.
East of Eden was originally published in 1952. The edition I read was published to coincide with the centennial of Steinbeck’s birthday. It was released on February 5, 2002 by Penguin.