East of Eden is the only the second book I’ve read by John Steinbeck. I, like many, read Of Mice and Men when in High School. I picked up East of Eden during Borders closing sales as a remainder, thinking I should read what many consider an American classic. For the last few years, it has sat –like many more- unread in a box in the garage. In the nearly two years since Borders closed, and not having money to buy every book I wanted, I’ve been revisiting those lonely cardboard boxes in the dark, musty garage of SoCal.
I retrieved the book while looking for something else a few months ago. I brought it in, and set it aside while I read books I took out of the library. After finishing the Neil Gaiman book in a day, I picked up East of Eden and began reading, more on a whim, than making it my next choice to read (I do struggle, at times, figuring out what I want to read next, unless there is something I really, really want to read).
I won’t say I hate this book –hell, Steinbeck had a great talent with writing prose- but it pretentious, overtly melodramatic, self-satisfied, even patronizing to its readers. But its greatest problem is that it ultimately nothing to say. I know many consider this his ultimate novel; even Steinbeck felt that East of Eden was the book that represented everything he has written in the past. But the novel goes on and on, never really rising above anything more than a pot-boiler/re-telling of Genesis and the Cain and Bale story from the Bible.
Perhaps part of the problem lay in the fact that Steinbeck tries to making it semi-autobiographical as well. His knowledge of the Salinas Valley in Northern California is extensive, yet you can’t bring that story to life with such dull, talkative characters that never grow, never learn. Perhaps that was Steinbeck’s goal, to point out that humans never learn from their mistakes and history will always repeat. It’s too black and white for me, and maybe in 1952 this was what readers wanted –though I’ve read it was major disappointment when it came out and only decades later is it considered great.
In the end, it was a struggle to finish. It’s about 350 pages too long and by its end, when no one learns anything, I could no longer care about any of the characters, for all were pretty irritating and, mostly, dull.