East of Eden by John Steinbeck
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I've reread this book every couple of years, and each time it adds back a little bit of that color to life that I didn't realize was starting to drain. Steinbeck writes in a way that clearly cuts against our contemporary novels, so often grounded in realism to the point of banality in trying to be "truthful." Steinbeck writes with enough richness that his characters can be analysed on end, yes, because they are symbols. They are more than human, but not just superficially so. Steinbeck elevates symbolism and aesthetic to a higher level. I don't read his stories so much as wrap myself up in them, immersing myself in his world. I remember the first time I went to California after reading a Steinbeck novel, and the hillsides seemed to whisper to me in a way they never before had.
Like the bible from which it draws so much, the interpretation of this novel will change over time. I for one found Cathy to be one of the most compelling characters of the novel. She ostensibly lacked depth, because that is how her creator (Steinbeck) viewed her and made her. It was only natural that she was cynical, because Steinbeck seemed to create her in a sense of cynicism. But with a more modern interpretation, she was a strong-willed, independent character who didn't want to obey society's rules, and was willing to experiment with the suppressed desires of people, most obviously sex. She was the perfect foil to Adam-he saw things as he wanted to see them, and she saw things as they are.
As an Asian American, I won't go into my love of the character Lee in too much detail. Suffice to say, his comments to the effect of "sometimes to make people listen, you have to tell them what they want to hear" resonated with me the first time I read this, and each time after. Nothing is what it appears on the surface in a Steinbeck novel. Every detail in this lengthy story is important, and in a sense the novel is that realistic in that we come to make certain assumptions about the characters and the story that are ultimately turned on their head. In the end, though, all the pieces in the narrative just fit together. The novel may as well be called "Life."
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