It was my turn to pick a title for book club this month and instead of being sensible (you know, going for something everyone would enjoy), I decided to:
- Make it difficult for everyone else by picking a very long book
- Make it boring for everyone else by picking a classic
- Make life easy for myself by picking something I’d read before
I chose East of Eden by John Steinbeck. All 600 pages of it.
Before I start, I should make it clear that I LOVE STEINBECK, so this is probably ever so slightly biased by me being a fan-girl.
East of Eden is part memoir, part fiction; which gives an immediate sense of realism. The narrator (Steinbeck himself) leads you through the story of the Trask family, who seem painfully doomed to make the same mistakes, one generation after the other.
It covers a lot of ground; everything from prostitution and race in pre-Great Depression California, to the huge question of whether destiny is inherited or chosen; the latter being a strong re-occuring theme that ties events from different generations (and the bible!) together.
Steinbeck’s style can be pretty heavy going in places. Even I’ll admit (don’t tell John) there are a couple of pages I had to re-read to make sure I’d got the gist. The story can be pretty bleak in places, the Author isn’t known for happy-go-lucky writing, but there are moments of lightness interspersed. These moments do tend to appear pretty randomly though, making the story hop from one tangent to another. To me, this adds to the feel of this being a memoir, but others felt the book had a slightly rambling, overly descriptive feel.
When researching book club questions, I saw there was a film adaptation of the book that featured James Dean. I watched it, excited that it would bring the drama of the book to life, but was hugely disappointed. The film only covers the last third of the book, and misses out the main theme of the book. I couldn’t help but feel they’d hacked the book apart, only taking the most basic elements forward. Also, the film didn’t feature Samuel Hamilton or Lee, my favourite characters, who I feel are the heart and mind of the book respectively.
Steinbeck considered East of Eden his greatest work. Much as I love him I have to disagree. I do think it’s a fantastic read, but to me, Of Mice and Men and Grapes of Wrath are his best. I think they cover similarly heavy themes, but in a more direct, impactful way.
If you enjoyed East of Eden, I’d really recommend 1984 by George Orwell. It’s hugely different in style, but if you like your books with moral questions, darkness and brains, it’s dystopian future is for you (warning: it did give me nightmares).