Barbara Talks Books: To The East of Paradise

I do not know if this happens to you, but sometimes I stop and wonder what my favorite writer would be. It’s a thing I can never answer. The books I read are good, some even genial, but they are never those that mark me or mean a great thing for my education. I’ve read several authors, but preferred only one or two. Those you need to read avidly to the end, holding the books as gems to just drop after the last pages finish. With my first book by John Steinbeck, I can say that I have just acquired yet another favorite writer.

The situation in which I bought my edition of East of Eden was quite strange. I was in the thrift shop, flipping through books and more books like I always do and I like to do, looking for something interesting, but not finding anything that was worth it. Then I thought, ‘you know, I’ll pick the biggest book they have on this bookcase for the cheapest price.’ I pulled out the book-a bunch of 600 and a few pages-and read the first paragraph. Sack, I thought to myself. At first, John Steinbeck is concerned with describing in detail the entire region of Salinas, where the novel takes place. I did not give up: I advanced in reading and then I realized, I was already following the misadventures of the Trask and Hamilton families for the arid and impoverished landscapes of the region.

WARNING – mild spoilers ahead!

John Steinbeck does not deny his roots. The book – considered by the author as his best work – has an obvious autobiographical touch. Born and raised in the region that he describes the first few paragraphs so well, the author manages to transpose into the paper everything that, I believe, he observed, felt, smelled. The narrator is a kind of omniscient character, a descendant of the Hamilton family, and I wonder if Steinbeck himself is be telling a little of his own story.

The book begins by showing the arrival and installation of two quite different families in the Salinas region of the United States. The first has as patriarch Sam Hamilton, a good man, obsessed with inventions and patents. Sam spends all day inventing mechanisms to help the men of the area, creating wells, feeding the animals, and always trying to serve all the inhabitants of the region in the best possible way, forgetting his own family and himself.

The second family features the brothers Adam and Charlie Trask. In a clear allusion to Cain and Abel – which is repeated later with the children of Adam Trask – the brothers vie for the love and attention of their father, a hard-line war veteran who believes more in the power of his actions than in the power of words.

There is also a third fundamental character for the development of the story: Cathy Ames. Cathy (or Kate, further on) may be one of the best characters built throughout the novel. I dare say that she was one of the villains I learned most to admire in the literature I’ve read. Cold, cruel, and patient, Kate is the kind of villain who would make Darth Vader look like a defenseless ten-year-old girl. Hardly anyone would be able to remain unmoved by the character’s attitudes – which, despite villania and a falsely holy posture, has one of the most cruel and absurdly mad minds in the world.

One of the most interesting points of the book is its form of construction. It does not have many descriptions – excepting, of course, the long and tiresome descriptions of landscapes that occasionally pop up in the text – especially about the characters’ feelings. And that is fascinating. The narrator does not have to say something like ‘he looked at her angrily’, because the dialogues themselves manage to get this message across. Dialogues about dialogues, the reader can see the intention of the author in those few – and seemingly empty – sentences, all the emotional load that will characterize the scenes and their participants.

There is no way to write a synopsis for a type of book like this. It is a majestic and grandiose story that covers about fifty years (or more, I am kicking an estimated period) of the history of two families and the way they intertwine. Their dramas, frustrations, desires, longings, and joys. A lesson for anyone who wants to write something; hours and more certain hours of distraction, reflection, and literal travel to the world of Steinbeck for those who just want to read the book on the bus or before bed. One thing is certain: I simply became fascinated by Steinbeck’s narrative. 

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