East of Eden by John Steinbeck
4 out of 5 stars
This book is epic. There's no other way to describe it. At its basic level, it's a retelling of the Bible's Cain & Abel, which I was a little leery of at first but ended up enjoying immensely. There's enough grit and darkness, plus some comedic moments, in the story to keep anyone interested. However, if you are coming into Steinbeck's work fresh, this is not where you should start. (Nor Grapes of Wrath, in my opinion.) This book is too grand, too immense in all its lessons and themes of mortality and love and choice for a beginner Steinbeck reader. I am so glad I waited until after all the others to read this because I don't think I would have liked it as much.
Steinbeck's great love is Salinas Valley, CA and he takes us back there in this epic saga of the Hamilton & Trask families. The two families start out on opposite coasts and eventually intersect in Salinas. The Hamilton family, based in part or whole (not sure how much) on Steinbeck's own family, is a good Irish family living on a large farm in Salinas. Notwithstanding the large amount of land they own, they are not rich people, mostly due to patriarch Samuel Hamilton's lack of business sense. Despite this, Samuel is well-loved and respected among his family and friends. Adam Trask comes to California after many years of being physically and emotionally beaten by his father and half-brother Charles. (The first Cain & Abel) He brings with him a young wife named Cathy who is pregnant with his twin sons. Cathy is evil. Flat out evil. Wow, is she evil. And yet, she was probably the most interesting to read about. From an early age, Cathy learned how to get what she wanted, no matter what the cost. She killed, stole, lied, used her body, she didn't care.
We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly re-spawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.
Adam and Samuel become good friends, along with a Chinese-American named Lee, who works for Adam. When Cathy runs off, abandoning her twin babies and husband, Adam collapses into himself and Lee is the one who raises the boys. They don't get names until they are a year old: Aron and Caleb. (And the Abel & Cain story continues.) The 3 elder men spend a good deal of their time discussing Bible verses and alternate meanings of words, which can drag on a bit, but still had some gems that stuck out.
"Timshel. Thou mayest.-that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if 'Thou mayest'-it is also true that 'Thou mayest not.'
It took me by the throat and shook me. Thou mayest rule over sin. That's it. I do not believe all men are destroyed. It is true of the spirit as it is true of battles-only the winners are remembered. Surely most men are destroyed, but there are others who like pillars of fire guide frightened men through the darkness. Thou mayest, Thou mayest! What glory!"