I posted recently about how excited I was to join in the East of Eden read-along, hosted over at The Estella Society. It began on July 21, and I just reached the first checkpoint! I had never read anything by John Steinbeck before going in to this book, so I was at a complete loss regarding what to expect. I can’t remember ever discussing Steinbeck’s work in high school or college English classes, but I had these preconceived notions that I must have picked up somewhere. For example, I knew roughly that his books were set in the West…or something like that. And Grapes of Wrath is about the Depression, right? Anyway, I went in with a mostly clean slate and a mostly open mind.
My first impression is that Steinbeck’s writing is just really accessible. I’ve read so many novels, especially classics, where I feel as though I need a dictionary and maybe a PhD to understand what’s going on. But I was immediately able to follow Steinbeck. He doesn’t really try to be pretentious or overly intelligent. He just writes the story in plain language. Which doesn’t mean that his writing is lower quality. Quite the opposite, in fact. The story is well-written, the characters complex, the descriptions vivid. My one qualm about his writing so far is that he often starts a chapter or section with several paragraphs that sound like a written speech. For example, chapter 13 in my version starts off with a speech about glory. Although it ties in to Adam’s story later in the chapter, it felt jarring to go from plot to speech to plot again so quickly.
Speaking of plot, here’s the short version so far, if you’re so inclined to read. Spoilers ahead! Skip to the next paragraph if you want to remain in the dark, plotwise! The book opens with a rough character sketch of an Irishman named Samuel Hamilton, whose family settled in California’s Salinas Valley on a plot of land that is absolutely parched. With a large family to support, Sam goes to work blacksmithing and other such things. Then Steinbeck shifts to the story of Charles and Adam, two brothers growing up on the East Coast under the influence of a father who may or may not have accomplished the many things he claims to have accomplished. There’s a lot of rage and sibling rivalry, but eventually Adam joins the army, Charles stays on the farm, and the father dies. Later, Adam marries crazy Cathy and moves West, to the Salinas Valley, where he meets Sam.
I love the characters so far. The jolly Irishman. Two siblings just trying to earn their father’s love. A crazy, manipulative woman who murders her parents and becomes a prostitute of sorts before settling into an unhappy marriage. The main players in our story are very, very human. There are flaws and so many shortcomings. There is uncertainty and envy and unhappiness. This character development, along with the story itself, brings so many questions to mind. What does it mean to be successful? What is the price of happiness?
At this point, we don’t know a ton other than a great deal of the backstories of Adam and Charles, but I think the next section of the book will pick up and dive deep into plot. I have no clue if Adam and Cathy can find happiness or what larger role Sam will play in Adam’s life. I don’t know what happens to Charles, all alone on the farm. But I do know that I am enjoying this novel much more than I thought I would. I can’t wait to see what happens next!
Anybody reading along? What do you think so far?
P.S. Confession! For much of this first section, I totally thought Adam and Charles grew up in the Salinas Valley. So you can understand why I was confused when Adam and Cathy moved West to settle there, right? 🙂