So, the reason I picked up this Steinbeck omnibus I’ve been reading is because I decided it was well past time for me to read this novel; it takes up the majority of the omnibus, ie. more pages than the other three stories put together and Steinbeck considered it his masterpiece. Well, I wasn’t sure anything would ever displace The Grapes of Wrath as Steinbeck’s masterpiece, but after reading East of Eden, I have to say I agree with the author: this is his most essential, most striking, most effecting novel. In short, yes, his masterpiece.
The story is multi-generational and all of the characters are brilliantly wonderfully sketched. The story is steeped in Biblical imagery and allusion, most especially, and most obviously, the story of Cain & Abel. There’s a stunningly wonderful scene in the book where three of the characters simply stop the plot and discuss and debate the story of Cain & Abel for several pages . . . at least ten, I’m sure. The novel is a story of relationships and it is most interested in the relationships of brother/brother and father/son. I don’t really want to take time to get into things like plot here. It’s a dense book and, for all its length, it never stops moving at a cracking pace, so there’s a ton of material here. But the novel really does unfold in depth and power the farther you get into it and, as I’ve discovered these past few days, the more you think about it after you’re done. You see moments that you can’t believe you missed in the reading, moments that your subconscious latched onto as significant but that your conscious mind simply passed over due to the sheer wealth and depth of information it was dealing with.
It’s the characters that really make the novel; the warring siblings Adam & Charles; Cal & Aron, the two twins who almost make up an entire person between the two of them; the gregarious Samuel Hamilton; the Chinese cook, Lee Chong, who plays at first like a stereotype but reveals a deep well of emotion and intelligence as the novel unfolds; Will Hamilton, the conniving son of Samuel. If these are all men, well, this is a story of male relationships, as I said. But Steinbeck also created a lasting female character here, the best character he ever created in my opinion, in Cathy Ames, introduced, as a young girl, by a paragraph about humans born with deformities of the soul instead of the body. That should tell you right there some of what you need to know about Cathy, who is the most fascinating character of the book and the most disturbing. Her sections of the novel are the most compulsively readable, and that’s really saying something, because the entire novel is unputdownable, as they say.
I don’t know what else to say, really. This is the best book I’ve read in . . . a few years I’d say, not counting a recent reread of Les Miserables, I suppose. It’s a distinctly American epic on its face; peer closely at that large canvas, however, and you’ll see some of the most finely drawn and evocative characters of all time, as archetypal as they are deeply real and human. It’s simply a phenomenal book. I’m quite sure that it’s going to come in as my number two book of the year, behind Les Mis of course, but far surpassing anything I’ve read to this point or will read in the remaining months of 2014. I’d love to be pleasantly surprised by a book that’s even better than this one, but it seems unlikely. I don’t know that I’d recommend starting here with Steinbeck; like I say, it’s a brick of a novel. But it’s a book you simply have to read. No way around it; if you haven’t read it, there’s a hole in your soul just its size. A novel that deserves to be called great. Highly recommended. 4 stars.
tl;dr – a sweeping epic that is also a study of several finely sketched, evocative characters; rightly considered a masterpiece, it’s a book that truly must be read. 4 stars.