New Thing: Read East of Eden

I always thought that I hated Steinbeck.

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

P.S. Why you should read + watch + listen outside of your comfort zone

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  1. Jay Bee

    Ooh! This looks like something right up my alley! Thanks for the excellent review, Sarah.

  2. Mary Beth

    I have always thought I hated Steinbeck too but upon your recommendation I think I will give this a try – maybe even force my book club to read it with me!

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Yesss! It’s so, so discussion-worthy!

  3. Julie

    Sorry I keep commenting all the time lately, but East of Eden is my favorite book. I feel like (as an atheist) I belong to the church of East of Eden. And with every new read it’s a totally unique spiritual and emotional experience. So glad you enjoyed it.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      I can totally see that. Heck, I’d belong to the Church of Lee!

  4. ashley

    This is a book I’ve always looked at on my shelf and been really intimidated of. It’s so big and important!

    I read Travels with Charley by Steinbeck instead and LOVED it. It seems like a book you’d enjoy, too–it’s non-fiction, he travels across America with his dog and writes about all the people he meets.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Ooooh, maybe that’ll be my next read! Steinbeck certainly is readable.

  5. Tis

    On one of the most awful nights of my life, I stumbled out of the dark and wind and rain in Tiger Leaping Gorge in southern China and into a “hostel”. There was another couple there, and once I’d come to my senses and changed my socks and drank some tea, I asked if they had a book to trade. He howled in laughter and she said, “Oh boy do I!” And then she pulled out Ulysses from her pack. !!!!????!!!!!

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Oh my god, dude. My husband INSISTS that Ulysses is “hilarious.” IN WHAT WORLD I ASK YOU.

      • Tis

        Ha! I wouldn’t know. Needless to say, the weight alone made it not an option, as I still had several mountains to get over, around and through. (Always buy the guidebook!)

  6. Gem Wilder

    I LOVE THIS BOOK!!!!!! I found the pidgin subplot with Lee fascinating. I was also obsessed with Lee’s bible study and the concept that mistranslations of a single word can entirely change an interpretation. You’ve reminded me that I still haven’t seen the movie adaptation.

    I love Steinbeck’s writing. It always seems to intelligent and considered, but also really subtle. Albert Wendt’s Leaves of the Banyan Tree is comparable to East of Eden in that it is an intergenerational family saga/tragedy that explores the notion of “good”, and takes place in a very specific setting. Wendt and Steinbeck are both favourites of mine.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Oooh, I’ll have to check out Banyan tree! I’d also love to discuss East of Eden with a devout Christian and see how/if our interpretations differ.

  7. Amy

    You’ve convinced me to try this book – I also suffered through Grapes of Wrath in high school and couldn’t stand it. I can’t believe I’m finally excited to read something by Steinbeck!

  8. Sarah M

    Oh my gosh, you may have changed me. Bone-crushing boredom, indeed….I HATED Steinbeck and vowed to never read him again. I’ll have to rethink that position now….(I even skipped the spoilers!)
    Sarah M

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Seriously! It is so, so good. I think having a well-developed female lead is what saved it for me.

  9. Madeleine

    Give Grapes of Wrath another go! I think as an adult you might have a different experience. I found it so moving and beautiful (and wept so much). Also found myself unable to stop speaking with an okie accent (doesn’t blend that well with my normal Australian…) for several weeks but that’s another issue

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      I’ll have to give it another try!

  10. Shannon

    Great book! The movie is quite good too, especially with the lovely James Dean. Unfortunately, I read it several years ago, so I don’t remember much in terms of the details except it being good.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      I’ll happily watch ANYTHING staring James Dean 😉

  11. Sarah

    I totally remember thinking that Cathy would have to be a lot more crafty to pull off a double-murder now (she would be able to, it would just be more complicated). Being able to tell the difference between animal and human blood was a pretty early advancement in the development of police forensic investigation. Also she “disappears” several times. It is so much harder to start a new life with a new ID now.
    I read EOE in high school, when I was a virgin. It introduced me to a level of sexual politics that I was not expecting. I have read it a couple of times since then, but not in the last ten years. I should give it another go.

  12. Allison

    East of Eden is one of my favorite books of all time, but I haven’t read it since high school or early college. Definitely need to find my copy.

    Also, I read awhile ago that they may be making a new movie version of it…with Jennifer Lawrence as Cathy. I really hope that happens.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      YES! When I was trying to cast her in my mind I kept coming up with JLaw or Amanda Seyfried!

  13. Rachel DCB

    I am SO glad Steinbeck was redeemed for you! I read EofE last fall (before seeing it on stage at the Steppenwolf in Chicago) and loved it. To answer your questions: 1) Cal is so much more complex that Aron, so I found myself more drawn to him. 2) While a little outdated, the Lee subplot is an interesting discussion starter for concepts like stereotypes, “the other”, racism, etc., so I liked it. I also liked it, I think, because I was one of the “insiders” who knew he was just putting on an act for those who couldn’t see past his skin. 3) *tear* don’t even bring it up *tear*
    Really think you should read more Steinbeck, too. Not only great writing, but interesting approaches to subjects (the bums in Cannery Row come to mind, for example). Enjoy!

    • Manisha

      I just wanted to say that the Lee subplot is not so outdated. I am of South Asian heritage and people often expect me to have an accent. Some literally can’t understand me even though I have a strong Minnesotan accent. I find it amusing theses days but I raged against it when I was younger.

  14. Hannah

    I read this based on your recommendation and LOVED it. This was my life for a couple of days last weekend. I’m not American, have never been to that part of California, and obviously times have changed but I was totally sucked into that world. Adored the characterisations and the moments of pure literary beauty (“I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe.”) Thanks for enthusiastically sharing!

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Yaaay! I’m so glad! It’s so, so engaging, right?!

  15. Manisha

    So, Sarah, I’ve had this book on my mind since reading your review. I’m nearly done but I have come back to this post several times to read your thoughts. I have to say that I nearly gave up on the book when it got to Lee. I was prepared to be annoyed and angry. I’m so glad I stuck to it because that Lee situation changed in wonderful ways. Thanks for the recommendation! I pushed it onto my husband so that we can discuss!

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