Saturday, January 13, 2007

book of books - East of Eden


This is the last book in my series of five that was part of the Winter Reading Challenge and although it was almost the longest it was a great book to finally read. John Steinbeck is known for his gritty portrayals of life in California during the depression but this is set in an earlier time and as a result the great theme is not poverty and struggle but love.

Plot summary
The mammoth book is best split into three parts for the ease of explaining the plot:

Pre-California
The book evolves around two families, the Hamilton’s and the Trask’s, with the first section of the book focusing on the Trask brothers Adam and Charles and their father and step mother. The brothers grow up with a strained relationship that improves after their father dies but then falls apart after Adam falls in love with a stranger who comes to the house and marries her making Cathy his wife and then moves away to California and settles in the Salinas valley.

California - The farm
What Adam doesn’t know is that Cathy does not feel love and is a killer and she only stays with him long enough to give birth to twins, shoot him in the arm and leave him. By this time Adam has purchased a farm in the Salinas valley and made friends with Samuel Hamilton, an aging Irish immigrant who is a wise friend and helps him name the twins after Cain and Abel – Caleb and Aaron. The other main character is the Chinese servant Lee who makes friends with Samuel and grows to become a steadfast companion to Adam. As the boys grow and Adam mourns for Cathy he is forced to come out of his daze confronted by the truth that Cathy has now become Kate and runs a brothel in Salinas. Samuel is weakened by the news that one of his daughters has died and he never really recovers and his children plan to get him to leave the ranch but each reacts differently to his character and his love with some following his way – Joe in particular – while others become successful being the opposite – notably Will.

Salinas
The family move there and Adam becomes free of Cathy after realising that she is more afraid of him than she is of her. He develops an interest in the town and invests in a business that fails and as a result the boys are subjected to teasing which hurts Aron more than Cal, who is more like his mother. An uneasy relationship between the father and sons is going well until Cal surprises his father with money to cover his losses from the business venture and Adam rejects the money, although importantly not him. Cal takes his revenge by introducing Aron him to his mother leading his brother enlisting to fight in the First World War and ultimately to die in battle. The book ends with a very moving moment when Adam, who has suffered a stroke after the news of Aron’s death, is asked to forgive his son Cal. His father does it handing his son the chance to have a future free of the guilt of the past.

Is it well written?
Because of the size of the book, 728 pages, it is a bit of a slow burner and it sometimes feels strange to get introduced to the Hamilton’s and then not read about them again for several chapters. In the second half of the book the central theme of examining what happens when there is blind love, no love or unrequited love becomes clear and the book really starts to hit its stride when there are just about 250 pages left to go. The problem with the start is that some people will walk away from this book because it doesn’t grab them and because the dust jacket, which describes it as a case of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel does simplify things slightly. But Steinbeck has an ability to describe the power of a glance, thought or expression in a away that most writers can only aspire to. This is also a semi-autobiographical story because John Steinbeck is in the book as a child and if this is right Samuel Hamilton was his grandfather. That sensitivity to telling a family story also shows through with the style – it was a book that clearly mattered to him and he is quoted as saying it was the book that all the others had been preparing him for.

IS it worth reading?
Please stick with it and the answer is a resounding yes but it takes some patience and concentration, because some themes echo throughout the book. It is also about prejudice not just racial, which is demonstrated by Lee who after coming out as an equal is then treated badly by the nurse at the end providing a sharp reminder of his status, but about the fundamental questions of good and evil. On a personal level it made me think about how I treat my two sons and how my reactions to those moments when they try to impress me are crucial.

Version read – Penguin paperback

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