His books seemed to be a never-ending parade of men and farms and depression and desperation. I remember dragging myself through Grapes of Wrath in 11th grade English, staring into the middle distance with bone-shaking boredom as we worked our way around the room, reading passages. Everyone was sad. Everything was covered in dust. Some smart, kind person was always failing and floundering, despite their best intentions.
These were not the novels that self-absorbed 17-year-old girls connected with. (P.S. spoilers below)
So choosing East of Eden as my New Thing book this year was mostly an exercise in I-should-really-read-that-book-that’s-constantly-referenced. I was horrified to discover that it’s 600+ pages. Pro tip! If you want to force your way through a giant book, bring it as your only piece of reading material on a trip to a non-English speaking country! You will read anything eventually!
My plan was foiled because this book is amazing and I stayed up till 1 am to finish it, five days into an 18-day trip.
Planning fail, BOOK TRIUMPH.
I loved this book so much I immediately fell down a wiki hole. I spent an hour googling things like “WTF can we talk about Cathy and feminism and Steinbeck” and then I begged my husband to read it so we could Discuss It. And could he also get that well-read couple we know to read it so we can allllll discuss it? And maybe I should just download the movie version and watch it right here in my Mexican beach house instead of walking on the beach and collecting seashells.
That’s how good it is.
If you’ve never read it, here’s a suuuuuper topical synopsis, via Amazon:
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.
It’s a novel about family and love, good and evil (if there is such a thing), and nature vs. nurture. The characters are complex and engaging. More than once I got verklempt over someone’s vulnerability. When Tom welcomes Dessie home! When Cal works up the courage to give his dad the money! When Sam Hamilton does just about anything!
But the best/worst/most fascinating character in the book is Cathy Ames, estranged wife of Adam Trask and mother to his twin sons. She is, without a doubt, a total sociopath. She murders her parents, shoots her husband, and poisons her mentor so she can take over the business. While she is manipulative and, well, a murderer I couldn’t help wonder – would her story be possible today? What would have happened to Cathy Ames in 2016?
Cathy told her husband that she didn’t want to move to California, but he ignored her and moved anyway. She got pregnant and didn’t want the babies; she tried to abort them and was stopped by a doctor. While pregnant with her unwanted children, she told her husband she didn’t want to stay on the farm and he laughed it off. After she had the twins, she told her husband she wanted to leave. When she tried to, he pushed her back into her bedroom. She shot him in the shoulder and left.
Of course, Cathy goes on to do terrible, horrible things that have nothing to do with sexism or oppression. But what would have happened if Cathy had access to birth control or a safe abortion? What if her husband viewed her opinions and needs as equal to his own?
Well, she still would have been a sociopath who murdered her parents when she was 19. But it’s an interesting point to ponder.
Truly, I could write another 2,000 words about this novel and its characters but instead, I’ll write just four: GO READ IT NOW.
Have you read East of Eden? If you have, I want to know:
1. Which twin did you prefer?
2. How did you feel about Lee and the pidgin subplot?
3. How did you feel about the Dessie and Tom subplot? That one did me in.