“Do you take pride in your hurt? Does it make you seem large and tragic? …Well, think about it. Maybe you’re playing a part on a great stage with only yourself as audience.”
I rate it: 6/10
Six Word Summary: Book of Genesis repeats itself, tediously
Some books hit you with a sense of awe as soon as you begin reading. Steinbeck begins East of Eden with a seasonal description of Salinas Valley so alive that you can actually smell flowers with unreal names like maidenhair and harebells. Your skin tingling with the excitement of exploring a new land, you read on about young Sam Hamilton, an Irish settler with a merry eye and a poetic soul, a complete misfit among the farmers of the valley who understand only the land and its requirements. You break for a moment to peek into wikipedia, and find out that Samuel Hamilton was actually the author’s grandfather on his mother’s side. Things are just getting better and better with the introduction of the Trask family, in Connecticut, with a delusional, dangerous father, and two brothers who must compete for his affection. You are tempted to immediately text your friends to tell them you have found the best Steinbeck ever. You don’t, however, because you are lazy.
All for the best. 100 pages in, and the book suddenly loses steam. No more stories of psychopathic schoolgirls, no more hobo adventures starring Adam Trask, no more interesting Irish family anecdotes. Suddenly, for pages on end, all you have is monologues brooding over the nature of pain and destiny. Sam Ham and Adam Trask spend hours debating obscure points in the bible and imparting knowledge and wisdom to each other. The Trask family servant, a caricature Chinese with stereotypical pidgin, evolves overnight into Yoda, and proceeds to dazzle whiteys with his oriental sagacity. Adam Trask has twin sons and names them after Cain and Abel, which is as much asking for it as naming your kid Oedipus, and then he proceeds to love one more than the other. By this time, you are feeling a leeetle bit mad at Steinbeck, for duping you like this.
The last third of the book picks up again, with the third generation Trasks talking less and doing more, love intrigues and triangles, and most interestingly, a lot of story on Adam Trask’s murderous, horrible, psycho wife whom I’m sorry to say I loved very much. But by now, you are wary that the writing might dip again, and cannot abandon yourself to the masterly flow like you could in the first half. The book ends with heavy biblical symbolism, and you concede that while it is not, in fact, the best Steinbeck you have read, or even in the top three, all the same you enjoyed most of it, and feel at least a little bit enriched by the experience.
The Cain-Abel symbolism is so heavy handed, first with the brothers Charles and Adam, and then with the twins Caleb and Aron, that it stops being a metaphor and becomes a rewriting of the book of Genesis, complete with an Americanized “Am I my brother’s keeper?’. Subtlety never was Steinbeck’s strong point, but in East of Eden, he takes literalness to new heights. It feels like he hammers you on the head with the bible, and then in case you missed the reference still or got concussion, thumps you on the back with it some more.
Also, the back of the book says the lives of the Hamiltons and the Trasks are intertwined, but they aren’t. Not one bit, except old Sam Ham jawing with Adam occasionally, and some business advice/support exchanged in the next generation. So why were these people in the book? Well, Sam’s daughter Olive was John Steinbeck’s mother (in real life) and he was not content to be the writer, he wanted to be the narrator too, so he inserted his whole family into this fiction. Perhaps he envisioned a novel that was half autobiographical and half made up, but they stories do not gel and could have worked very well as two separate, shorter novels. I wish he had done that, because I really liked the Hamiltons and found their story much more interesting than the Trasks.
This novel is genius diluted by mediocre, resulting in a tolerable, reasonably interesting read that will perhaps improve on rereading because I will know which parts to skip.
-Amritorupa ” Just because you Cain doesn’t mean you’re Abel” Kanjilal