I wrote a bold and uninformed research paper after I read John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row for a class earlier this school year in which I argued that Steinbeck did his best ever work in Row. I had never read another Steinbeck book. My professor said that if I could support that thesis, that was fine, but he thought Steinbeck had written better works…like East of Eden (and, some of you are likely thinking, The Grapes of Wrath). And so I purchased East of Eden and sat down to read it in mid-March.
I did not know what to expect from this 600-page book, and that was a good thing. I had no negative or, aside from some vague recommendations like my professor’s, positive expectations for the story. The book’s first sentence is, “The Salinas Valley is in Northern California.” That’s not exactly gripping, but what follows is, and I can’t explain why. There is something in the opening words, the descriptions of the valley, that took my hand and led me to the doorstep of a long, engaging, and utterly human narrative.
Without ruining the story for anyone, I will say that even in the first 100 pages I met a character I wish I could sit and share a meal with and speak to for hours, a character whose pain I wish I could eliminate, a character on whom I wish all kinds of pain and yet don’t because I can understand some of the reasons for his pain, and more, and as the pages gave way to more characters and more hurts and joys and triumphs and cruelties, I realized that I could not imagine this novel ever ending. Maybe that’s why it took Steinbeck 602 pages to write it. I did not want it to end, but I also thought it should because it is a book and books end. I just could not imagine it ending.
But it did, and I cried. I never felt close to crying throughout the entire book because I was too close to the characters to be able to separate myself from them and see their pain—I was there with them. That’s what it felt like. But in the last page the journey I had traveled with Samuel Hamilton and Adam Trask and Aron and Cal and Abra and Lee cloaked itself around my shoulders and pressed its bittersweet weight into my mind, and emotion and awe clogged my throat and squeezed through my eyes. Thankfully, no one was around.
I hope this isn’t too vague a blog post, but I don’t want to give spoilers to those who might read East of Eden. I will say this: I highly recommend the book. You will, as one of my friends said, meet one of literature’s worst villains, maybe even two. You will question how much of them you can find within yourself. But the biggest gift Steinbeck gives us in East of Eden is a sprawling, intricate picture of who these people are and what people and events and landscapes formed them, because he begins at their beginning and walks with you as far as a book can go without getting ridiculously lengthy. This book gave me a profound understanding of the Trasks and the Hamiltons, and therefore perhaps of myself.
And on a lighter note, who would have thought to describe frying eggs this way? “He broke the eggs in the hot grease and they jumped and fluttered their edges to brown lace and made clucking sounds.” If you ask me, that’s exactly what it’s like to fry eggs.
I’ve ordered a copy of The Grapes of Wrath, a beautiful hardbound 75th anniversary edition copy, and when it gets here I’ll read that, too, so that people don’t look at me in shock when I say I’ve read Eden but not Grapes. And because I really like John Steinbeck.