Four Star review, originally posted here on October 26, 2015.
The writing in this book is an absolute treasure. Sometimes I wonder whether there really is a distinction between supposedly good and supposedly bad writing, and if it isn’t all just the same, really. And then I picked up East of Eden, and I was reminded that, oh wait, there IS such a thing as superior writing, and true writers are artists, and Steinbeck is a total master of his craft. If I had had a highlighter on me, every single page would have had some sort of highlighted portion, because of a passage either being particularly profound, or particularly beautifully crafted, or, in most cases, both. I feel sorry for the people sitting near me whenever I had this book in hand, because every few minutes I couldn’t stop myself from saying, “Listen to this!” and reading passages aloud. Bravo. Total masterpiece.
That being said, I’m actually not sure if I want to give this book 4 or 5 stars. I think really it’s a 4.5 from me. I very much enjoyed reading, and the writing (as mentioned) was incredible. I was impressed, as always, by Steinbeck’s gritty world, which in this case marvelously balanced with various settings. We had a lot of side characters, each of which was meticulously crafted and distinct. But somehow the main characters to me were the least interesting and the most flat, so I didn’t feel as drawn in to the core of the story. If a book is going to be this long, the ending should really draw me in, but by that point we were only left with some of the least-interesting characters, so things just kind of petered out. I also don’t really know or care much about the Cain and Abel story, which is supposed to be the central theme, so whenever they leaned heavily on the Cain and Abel parallels (or worse, the very low point of the whole novel is an entire chapter where the characters sit down in an impromptu book club to flat-out discuss the Bible story), I kind of zoned out. I’m also fully willing to admit that there may have been more thoughtful parallels that were just going over my head.
Still, this book is beautiful, and Steinbeck’s world is enrapturing. Some other pluses: I appreciate that it was not afraid to go dark (I think I even caught a bestiality reference). I appreciate that the female characters were strong, distinct, and interesting. Along those same lines, I appreciate the inclusion and treatment of a main Asian character (which, it occurs to me as I write this, is missing from almost all American novels I’ve ever read except for Amy Tan). And, in case it hasn’t sunk in yet I’ll say it again… the writing was the best writing ever. Ever.