Last year, I was listening to Frank Turner’s live album, Live In Newcastle, where in introducing his song “Redemption”, he discussed reading John Steinbeck’s EAST OF EDEN as a young man. Frank relayed how it spoke to him of moral responsibility and how each of us are responsible for the choices and the decisions that we make in our lives and to cast blame on others is the coward’s way out – that we all have to stand up and take responsibility for the kind of person we are.
Frank nails what this book is about. EAST OF EDEN follows two families – the Trasks and the Hamiltons – who both reside in California at the turn of the 20th century. Both families are put through the wringer over years as they deal with both impossible highs and unimaginable lows.
There are several characters here that will stick with me for years to come like Lee, the Trask family servant and of course Adam, the novel’s chief protagonist. The conversations between Lee and Adam are ones that breathe life into the novel and lift it above what it could have easily become – a 600 page lesson in the importance of morality. That isn’t a knock at the book – Steinbeck is a fantastic writer. It’s just that those two characters are the heart and soul of the story, but without them, it is a less memorable story.
I did have a few issues with the character of Cathy. I mean, it’s pretty clear she’s meant to be this irredeemably evil person, but I did find myself sympathizing with her at times. Or maybe that’s the wrong word? Maybe it’s the fact that I could understand why she did what she did at points. I don’t believe she is truly this cartoonish villain that Steinbeck wanted her to be, although, she is repulsive more often than not.
It feels like at times, without Lee, many of these characters would go off the rails at the drop off a hat. He selflessly spends the majority of this novel holding both the Hamiltons and the Trasks together; an unsung hero if there ever was one (although his introduction was definitely off-putting and jarring).
I could go on and on about this story. It’s not perfect, but it is a hell of a read. Steinbeck’s writing is exceptional and flows quite well considering its age and style (seventy years as of this review). Don’t let the length intimidate you. I’ve read a few reviews that lament its long-winded nature, but I struggled to think of anything I’d take out other than maybe that part where Adam learns how to drive a car.