East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Some books are just meant to be read during the summer. They need to be approached without a timetable. They're full of big, sweeping landscapes and generations of families. They can't be hurried. The Thorn Birds is one of those books. So is Gone With The Wind. I cracked the cover on East of Eden when I got to Palm Springs for residency. I knew I wouldn't finish it while I was there (it's 600 pages... come on!) but I figured I'd get good and invested while I had a pool and a hotel room all to myself.
I can't admit to already being a big Steinbeck fan. I taught Of Mice and Men for years and I like it well enough, but my forays into other Steinbeck novels were brief and frustrating. I'm sure I came to them unprepared to read slowly and absorb. I've tried to read Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row and The Grapes of Wrath at some point in the last ten years and abandoned them all. Something about my reading has changed in the last two or three years, though, and I'm much more willing to sit patiently with something to try to enjoy it than I was--I used to be all about reading quickly and trying to get to the end. Probably speaks to my trying to let go of the "I'll be happy when-s." But I loved this book. It was beautiful.
East of Eden follows several generations of the Hamilton and Trask families and their lives in the Salinas valley of California. The book is first and foremost a loving description of California, and those long, descriptive passages I used to abhor in my reading were completely enjoyable here. Steinbeck captures California in a way that made me want to take a road trip down the 101. The core of this book is the echo and re-imagining of the Cain and Abel story from Genesis, though. Since my final project for the MFA is on the retelling of old stories, my brain is keyed into this kind of reading right now, but it's interesting from both a literary and spiritual perspective. Not only does Steinbeck work elements of the Cain and Abel tale into his writing, he does so over multiple generations and is thus able to communicate original elements of the story and new thoughts on the issues it presents. This is a story about fathers and sons. The oldest story, after Adam and Eve. It's an amazing work.
I really enjoyed reading this book, and I didn't expect to. I picked it up thinking it was the kind of thing I ought to have read (see: Anna Karenina) and that I would have to stomach it for a few weeks in order to be a part of the culturally literate world. But it was funny and thought-provoking and beautiful. It wasn't the light reading I was thinking I needed after Mrs. Dalloway, but it was completely different in a good way.
My recommendation: Yes! Read it. It's a good summer read. Read it slowly, though. Read it to enjoy.