"Now that you don't have to be perfect, you can be good."
This quote from Steinbeck's East of Eden has been hanging on my wall for the last five years. I came across it on Ebay, or Etsy or somewhere else, and being both a Steinbeck fan and a hopeless perfectionist, it speaks volumes to me. I am always putting things off and not trying for fear that what I do won't live up to my own expectations, and that it won't be perfect. Of course, I should just get one with it and be good instead.
So, in the spirit of just getting on with it, East of Eden is the subject of my very first blog post. Steinbeck said of his work: "I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this." So, is it perfect?
The book centres around life in the Salinas Valley, California from the late 19th century to the Second World War. The action, such as it is, centres around two main families: the Trasks and the Hamiltons. The Trasks are rich but have issues, the Hamiltons are poor but have a lot of love. It is not an action packed book. In fact, very little actually happens in it. People are born, work and die, and have a lot of discussions about stuff. But please don't let that put you off. Steinbeck more than makes up for the lack of plot with the most exquisite descriptions, amazingly complex characters and his insights into human nature.
The book is essentially a retelling of the Cain and Abel story - good vs bad (and how almost everyone is both) and sibling rivalry. We hear the side of Abel from Adam Trask's experiences with his brother, and then Cain's viewpoint from Adam's son Caleb, who both loves and is jealous of his brother Aron.
What was good?
1. Pretty much all the characters are fascinating. Steinbeck was a genius for making them all interesting, complex, and flawed. There isn't one that you don't believe in 100%. Steinbeck really understands human nature:
"From his first memory Cal had craved warmth and affection, just as everyone does. If he had been an only child or if Aron had been a different kind of boy, Cal might have achieved his relationship normally and easily. But from the very first people were won instantly to Aron by his beauty and his simplicity. Cal very naturally competed for attention and affection in the only way he knew- by trying to imitate Aron. And what was charming in the blond ingenuousness of Aron became suspicious and unpleasant in the dark-faced, slit-eyed Cal. And since he was pretending, his performance was not convincing. Where Aron was received, Cal was rebuffed for doing or saying exactly the same thing."
2. Steinbeck messes with your head a bit, because he throws in references to his own family, and mixes in some of his true family history. His mother really was called Olive Hamilton, and he really did grow up in the Salinas Valley. Hence, you feel like the rest of the story is somehow true, and it ramps up your belief in his characters. Clever.
3. Cathy/Kate. Surely one of the best antagonists in literature. She's totally devoid of any compassion or feeling for anyone. In every section involving Cathy, I was totally absorbed.
4. It has great insights into the place and the time. How motor cars affected life, the way the people reacted to the War, attitudes towards immigrants, women, success, religion. All fascinating.
5. The descriptions are amazing. You really get a sense of place, and he also has a way of just dropping in nice little descriptive details without seeming like he's trying too hard:
"Salinas had two grammar schools, big yellow structures with tall windows, and the windows were baleful and the doors did not smile."
6. It's written in nice little chunks. So although it is quite a doorstop to tackle, it feels manageable when you can easily fit a small section in here and there.
What wasn't so good?
1. There wasn't enough Cathy/Kate. I really loved the parts of the book with her in it - she was such a mesmerising character. I was always left wanting more from her.
2. It is a bit rambling. I wasn't bored at any point, and the quality of the writing kept me reading, but parts of the story didn't really go anywhere and some didn't really add a great deal to the plot.
If you want an action packed page turner, probably look elsewhere. If you like beautiful writing, interesting characters and thought-provoking content, it is definitely for you.
East of Eden isn't quite perfect, but boy is it good.