Saturday, September 18, 2010

East of Eden by John Steinbeck ****

I thought I'd turn to a classic for my next book. I've read some of Steinbeck's works, my favorites being Cannery Row & Of Mice and Men. I'd seen the movie of East of Eden with James Dean about 15 years ago and I couldn't remember any of it except that JD played an angst-ridden teen, angry at the world. So it was really all new to me.

This was a retelling of the Cain and Able story, set in the Salinas Valley of California at the turn of the last century. There were many themes explored by Steinbeck, but I think my favorite is whether humans have the ability to choose their own destiny. Even though you have tendencies given to you by your parents, can you be yourself and choose your own path?

Cal and Aron are twin brothers who both want their father's love and approval. But only sweet-natured Aron seems to get it. Cal is smart, crafty, and loyal. Yet somehow the things he does to gain his father's attention only seem to offend his dad, while Aron can do no wrong.

The story is more than this, though. It also deals with the boys' mother, a woman who has something missing from inside her. She doesn't seem capable of love and only uses those around her to get what she wants. After giving birth to the twins she leaves her husband and enters the oldest profession in a nearby town. The boys are told their mother is dead, and without the loving ministrations of their father's hired housekeeper, a Chinese-American man named Lee, they surely wouldn't have made it to adulthood.

Lee is a philosopher by nature and it is through his musings that Steinbeck explores his ideas on the meaning of life and man's ability to control his own destiny. I was very disappointed to see that his character was totally lost from the movie version that I'd seen. I knew I didn't remember a Chinese cook in the movie, but just hoped I'd forgotten. It seems a real shame that that opportunity was missed, but then again the movie was made in 1955, just two years after the end of the Korean War. At that point in American history, China was not seen as a "friendly" and unfortunately that fear was transferred to the big screen.

I've noticed that Steinbeck doesn't write very nicely about women in general and this book was no exception, with Cathy/Kate being an icy whore. But he tries to redeem that by creating Abra, the love interest of both Cal and Aron. She is everything Cathy is not and is a mother-figure to Aron, while something more to Cal.

Overall, the book was good though long. I like Of Mice and Men more, but I can't bring myself to read that book anymore since having a son with a developmental disability. Dog and I went to see it performed as a play about 3 years ago and we both left in tears after the first act. It's a very good story, but it hits too close to home for me anymore. If you have never read Steinbeck I recommend it as his best work in my opinion.

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