Words 1: East of Eden
Updated: Apr 16
If you read my last post, then you know about the question currently guiding my reading: What is one book you should read before you die?
This fall when I was staying in Paris, my tiny, lovely little room at Hotel Esmerelda was set right above Shakespeare and Company, the world famous bookshop known not only for its fearless proprietor Sylvia Beach, but also the writers who found refuge in its book covered, magic walls: Hemingway, Fitzgerald & Fitzgerald, Joyce, Nin, etc. etc.
I went into the bookstore exactly three different times on different days. For a place I had read and thought about so much I knew the time would have to be just right to ask my question. When I did, on a bright, cool morning I was met with three answers. And of the three suggestions, it was John Steinbeck’s East of Eden that walked out with me.
This is a mammoth of a book, not only for its size - 4 parts, 55 chapters, over a dozen principal characters, and 727 pages - but also for the subjects it analyzes- biblical metaphors and family dynamics, sins and errors, morality and humanity. But if I was given one word to describe the premise of a book with so many I would choose goodness.
Through the course of the three generation of people in the Salinas Valley around the turn of the 20th century, weaving in Steinbeck’s own family narrative, the ultimate underlying theme - or rather question - is goodness. It’s debated, proved, and refuted with powerful prose and plot. It’s a pursuit, a nature, a choice. Yet when I was asked if the book was good, my answer came simply and without doubt...
From here on out, this review will dance the line of spoilers. I’ll try not to reveal anything that will take away from what I hope will be your own experience reading it, but there is a character I simply cannot stand not talking about.
Abra. You won’t meet her until later on in the book, and you want know her until almost the end. But nonetheless she now stands as one of my favorite characters in literature.
Abra and Aron (spelt without the ‘unnecessary’ second a) were childhood sweethearts. They built a life in the future that couldn’t be more perfect if they dreamt it themselves (...which they kind of did). Love. Marriage. Children. All absolutes. Yet as they grew out of adolescence, Aron begins to make a very human and very troubling fault. He leaves for college and in the distance he slowly transforms Abra into a perfection instead of a person. In the letters he writes, Abra is stripped of any fault, becoming what he wants her to be instead of what she is.
We can escape reality, but reality can also escape us.
Aron’s Abra is no longer the Abra who is living and breathing and wondering and wanting. Aron’s Abra is an ideal, an enigma he built out of loneliness, hope, and defiant disbelief in anything not as lovely as a childhood dream. When their relationship finally comes to an end, with details that I’ll leave you to discover, Abra burns the letters from Aron, letters not written to her but the idea of her. She is then told one of the most powerful lines in literature (at least to me)...
“Now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”
When Abra was set against perfection, her human flaws and faults were sharpened. In Abra I see human truth. I see burnt letters leading to liberation. Once she shed the unlivable standard of perfection, she found freedom to exist- to choose to be good despite or in spite of the evil.
Aron’s world was split into black and white. His vision of Abra being white, pristine, unflawed. But Abra is grey. Just as any human is. We are a sea of grey, of good and evil and everything in between. That is what humanity is. We are neither good nor evil, or perhaps we are both good and evil. What we are is a choice. Thousands of decisions we make, letting us become what we want to be. What we long to be.
East of Eden is a book to read if you want to see the art of a storyteller. It’s a book to read if you want to be pulled into the discussion about the core of our humanity. It’s a book to read to remember the choices that define our lives.
It would take far more than 727 pages for me to discuss the importance, depth, and conclusions of this book. But I’ll leave that up to you. If our identity is a series of choices, choose to read East of Eden.
Timshel. Thou mayest.
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