Book Review: East of Eden

‘All great and precious things are lonely…’

East of Eden (novel) - Wikipedia

John Steinbeck is a giant of American literature. Grapes of Wrath is rightly considered a masterpiece and is still the major literary reference point for the Great Depression. Of Mice and Men is arguably even more iconic – a dustbowl fairy tale that still shocks and saddens decades later. Despite the prestige and status of those two works, Steinbeck himself considered East of Eden to be his magnum opus, and it is difficult to argue…

East of Eden combines the interwoven stories of two families spanning a period of decades and taking in the American Civil War and the First World War. The Trask family are the main protagonists, with Adam Trask and his offspring the primary concern, but every aspect of their lives seems to be intrinsically linked with the Hamilton family. These two clans play out a grim cover version of the Genesis myth, specifically the chapters concerning Cain and Abel.

Despite being a long novel with numerous characters, Steinbeck’s great strength is in his simplistic, yet beautiful, prose. The Hemingway influence is both clear and welcome, and while they share a matter of fact writing style, Steinbeck is able to add a sweeping sense of romance to his work that Hemingway (probably purposefully) never really employed. The characters here are richly drawn, and while the juxtaposition of both a first person and omniscient narrator is sometimes jarring, the plot is so compelling that it hardly matters.

Reading any of Steinbeck’s work is to emerge from a time machine to find yourself covered in dust with an empty stomach to boot, but never is this more apparent than with East of Eden. Steinbeck has crafted a whole world here, carved out of the rock of his own upbringing in the Salinas Valley, and the emotions he manages to evoke will appeal to the nostalgia in all of us. The yearning for a paradise lost. For endless summers and mystical winters.

East of Eden poses the possibility that both the God and the Devil are raging inside all of us. Only we can decide which one of them we will turn to…

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