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East of Eden by John Steinbeck (Mini-review)

First published in the summer of 1952, this sweeping, ambitious story spanning decades and histories had become America’s number-one bestseller by that November.

It’s impossible to “review” such a book. Not only because it is a good 600 pages long. But because reading this is an experience and one that shouldn’t be spoiled. I’ll talk then about the elements of the story, its themes and preoccupations.

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This is about the Salinas valley in California. About generations of the Hamiltons and Trasks. About the relationship between brothers, between parents and children. About one of the scariest portrayals of a truly evil, non-conscientious person in Cathy Ames. This is about good, evil, and the constant struggle between the two. Of the vast and deep seas of grey. This is about Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve replayed through the lives of these characters with different outcomes.

Incidentally, the Hamilton family in the novel is based on John Steinbeck’s maternal grandfather, Samuel Hamilton, and his family. A young John also makes a brief appearance in what is surely a largely quasi-autobiographical work. A work that the author himself said he had been “practising” writing for 35 years.

This is a story that questions whether it’s true that second or even third chances can bear fruit. Whether man truly has the free will to change his image, to alter his destiny. This is a story about the power of choice.

The descriptions are detailed (sometimes too much so) and the characters are well defined and three dimensional. The sense of place is acute. And as with many novels of this size, there are considerable tangents. There are metaphors, obvious and hidden meaning, preoccupations larger than the characters and their lives, larger even than our lives, the lives of the readers.

Though this is very much a story of Salinas Valley and its people, it is equally one of humanity and possibility and concerns that surpass geographical, language and cultural boundaries.

‘It has to have a universal quality, or there is no point in writing it.’ –John Steinbeck

East of Eden, a modern classic, passes that test with flying colours.


Check out @booksinboston for more reviews and book talk, thanks for stopping by! Let me know your thoughts in the comments 🙂

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