|East of Eden
5 / 5
"The Salinas Valley is in Northern California."
Set in the rich farmland of California’s Salinas Valley, this sprawling and often brutal novel follows the intertwined destinies of two families—the Trasks and the Hamiltons—whose generations helplessly reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel. Here Steinbeck created some of his most memorable characters and explored his most enduring themes: the mystery of identity; the inexplicability of love; and the murderous consequences of love’s absence.
When I was on the second leg of a flight to Miami at the very end of 2003*, my seatmate was reading this book and raved to me about it (I unfortunately cannot recall what I was reading at the time, although I am certain it was something not nearly as literary). I have had it on my to-read list (at the time, it was a pen & paper version that I carried around in my Filofax for years!) ever since. And boy, am I glad I finally got around to it!!! What a gorgeous epic of, well, epic proportions. This retelling of the Cain & Abel story was so masterfully done - although, would you expect anything less from Steinbeck? I loved his take on the tale, and how he made things work out in the end. This wasn’t quite up to par with The Grapes of Wrath for me (perhaps because it wasn’t quite so political, so I didn’t feel as if it had a motive other than the telling of a great story), but it was certainly nonstop enjoyable.
Samuel Hamilton and Lee were by far my favorite characters. I wanted to just sit down and hang out with those two. They were down to earth and yet had these amazing views on the world. If you read the book for nothing else, read it for the passages where one of them discourses about the meaning of life. So worth it.
I also just loved how Steinbeck inserted himself into the periphery of the novel, as if this was a story he himself had experienced firsthand as a child. He made it feel as if he had watched it happen to someone else, to a neighbor his family was familiar but not close with. His childhood interactions with the main characters made the story feel so much more real. What a clever device.
Wikipedia says that Steinbeck used the novel as a vehicle for describing the Salinas Valley to his then-young sons. I find that fascinating, because yes, the Valley itself is almost another character entirely - it certainly informs the story and the movements of the characters, for better or for worse. I can see this book being an ode, a love letter, to the area - its lushness and verdancy in good years, as well as its leanness and cruelty in bad ones. I was fascinated to see my home state of Connecticut feature in the book, as well - although clearly it is not a place that Steinbeck favors.
Speaking of places, I also loved the title - the phrase referring to the location of the Land of Nod, where Cain was exiled after having murdered his twin brother. I was fairly unfamiliar with the Biblical tale going into the book, but luckily Steinbeck offers quite a thoughtful and thorough exploration of the story (and its various interpretations). This book becomes a study on the possibility of hope in the face of fate, and whether you are bound by the blood that flows through your veins. I truly loved it.
* If you haven’t experienced New Year’s Eve while wearing a sundress, you must! (Yes, even those of you who don’t regularly wear sundresses...hehe.)
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