East of Eden by John Steinbeck: Book Review

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Cover of East of Eden by John Steinbeck

4 Stars

Synopsis from GoodReads:

In his journal, John Steinbeck called East of Eden “the first book,” and indeed it has the primordial power and simplicity of myth. Set in the rich farmland of California’s Salinas Valley, this sprawling and often brutal novel follows the intertwined destinies of two families–the Trasks and the Hamiltons–whose generations helplessly reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel.

Adam Trask came to California from the East to farm and raise his family on the new, rich land. But the birth of his twins, Cal and Aron, brings his wife to the brink of madness, and Adam is left alone to raise his boys to manhood. One boy thrives, nurtured by the love of all those around him; the other grows up in loneliness, enveloped by a mysterious darkness.

First published in 1952, East of Eden is the work in which Steinbeck created his most mesmerizing characters and explored his most enduring themes: the mystery of identity, the inexplicability of love, and the murderous consequences of love’s absence. A masterpiece of Steinbeck’s later years, East of Eden is a powerful and vastly ambitious novel that is at once a family saga and a modern retelling of the Book of Genesis.

I am surprised by how much I liked this book. I had to read Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath for school, and I pretty much hated them both. Of course, I hated almost everything I had to read for school, so I don’t know if that says more about Steinbeck or about me. Either way, I was left with bad memories of Steinbeck.

I have several friends on GoodReads comment on how much they love this book, so when I found this edition with this cool retro cover at a library book sale, I went ahead and picked it up. It would probably have languished for a few more years in my stacks if I hadn’t decided to read it for Banned Books Week. (See, book challengers? You are only hurting your case and giving authors publicity. Leave it alone, and a lot of books will fade into obscurity).

Anyway, I started to love this from the first page. Who could resist this prose?

“I remember that the Gabilan Mountains to the east of the valley were light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness and a kind of invitation, so that you wanted to climb into their warm foothills almost as you want to climb into the lap of a beloved mother. They were beckoning mountains with a brown grass love. The Santa Lucias stood up against the sky to the west and kept the valley from the open sea, and they were dark and brooding–unfriendly and dangerous. I always found in myself a dread of west and a love of east. Where I ever got such an idea I cannot say, unless it could be that the morning came over the peaks of the Gabilans and the night drifted back from the ridges of the Santa Lucias. It may be that the birth and death of the day had some part in my feeling about the two ranges of mountains.”

I was blown away. Where was the grim author who had written such depressing books that I had been forced to read against my will? This wasn’t the same guy, surely!

And that was kind of how I continued on through the book. Oh, it got dark and grim (more on that momentarily), but Steinbeck can write! Who knew?

Let me just jump right in with Cathy. What a psycho bitch. Seriously. I don’t know if they used words like psychopath back in the day, but she really is. My status update after she is introduced: “Wow. *blinkblink* Cathy.” That said with wide, surprised eyes. She certainly made her mark on me in a hurry. She is just pure evil.

My edition was deceptively thin, so I didn’t realize it was over 500 pages of tiny font until I’d gotten a good start. Still, I made my way through this quicker than I expected to. Cathy was the character that I felt the strongest about, but I’m also intrigued by Caleb. He’s the one who is truly struggling to be a better person. He thinks that he was born evil, yet he still tries to fight it and be good. I have much more respect for him than for Aron, who just pretended that evil didn’t exist and so of course it couldn’t describe him. Cal has a bit of “Jacob wrestling the angel” in him.

I find myself almost wishing that I had read this in school. There’s so much to mull over and discuss here. I think my younger self would have hated the ending, and even now I wasn’t immediately taken with it. But as time goes on, I keep chewing on it, thinking it over, and liking it more and more. Really, it’s sneaking it’s way onto a special new list I’ll have in my head called “Strongest Ending to a Novel.” Right now it’s all alone on the list, but I’m sure I could come up with some others if I had to.

There are so many things I loved about this book. I loved the philosophical conversations between Lee and Samuel. I loved that I could follow along with them! They had a way of suddenly getting me to see something in a new light. I loved that Samuel Hamilton loved his land even though it wasn’t very good, and the way he loved to invent things. I loved watching his son Tom struggle to become himself. I loved that Lee made me think about my expectations and how they affect my perceptions. I loved how Adam made me think about how we choose to either move on or not, because it is always a choice.

I highly recommend this when you’re in the mood for a book that will actually make you think rather than just help you escape. We all know I love escapism, but sometimes even I need something meatier, and this certainly fit the bill.

“East of Eden has been subject to several attempts to remove it from library bookshelves. Called “ungodly and obscene” in Anniston, Ala., it was removed, then reinstated on a restricted basis in the town’s school libraries in 1982. Greenville, S.C., schools also saw a challenge to the book in 1991.”

Hmmm…. Okay, I think anyone would agree that Cathy is “ungodly and obscene,” but this book very much deals with good and evil. In order to have good, you have to have evil, so Cathy’s parts are necessary. And so much of the plot is an exploration of the story of Cain and Abel. Would the people who call this ungodly call the Bible ungodly? Not that the two are the same, by any means, but the idea is taken straight from the source.

Read an excerpt.

Read for the following reading challenges:
Off the Shelf
Page to Screen

Buy East of Eden at

Banned Books Week

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  1. Reading your review put the biggest smile on my face! Thank you for making my day. I love East of Eden, all for the same reasons you do. I wish more books had the conversations that Samuel and Lee have. Or maybe I just want that in real life! 😀

  2. I really need to go back to this book. I started it earlier this year and LOVED it, but misplaced my copy & had a million review books pop up all at the same time (and I also learned that I'm not cut out to read-a-long with other people. At all) but I was so intrigued and just caught up in the book. I REALLY need to finish it. SO glad to hear that you loved it!

    Although, I do recommend going back to The Grapes of Wrath. I love that book too, and think it's so worth loving.

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