So, what is East of Eden about? Well it's generally described as the saga of two families in California in the late 19th and early 20th Century.
And therein resides the book's deepest flaw. It's actually the story of one family — the Trasks. That is where all the interest lies.
For my money, the parallel account of the Hamiltons could virtually be eliminated. I suspect this problem arose largely because Steinbeck didn't have a rigidly fixed plan as to what he was going to write about, so the book — and it's a big book — just grew organically, and in a baggy and misshapen fashion, as he found his way into it.
And in those pre-computer days (it was published in 1953), the prospect of going back when he was finished and cutting out tens of thousands of words and reorganising the book was probably just too daunting. Or maybe he loved the bits about the Hamiltons. They are actually presented as the ancestors of Steinbeck's own family.
How true this is — and why the book is so oddly out of proportion — I hope to find out when I get a copy of Steinbeck's Journal of a Novel, The East of Eden Letters.
But to hell with dwelling on the flaws... what makes this book so wonderful? Well, for a start it features one of the greatest villains ever devised in literature, the astonishing Cathy Ames. Cathy becomes the beloved wife of the central character, Adam Trask. But Adam doesn't have a clue who she really is.
Cathy is a classic psychopath. She murdered her parents, plundered the family business and faked her own death. And this was in her early teens... she's just warming up. I won't give too much away, but she ends up abandoning Adam and her two sons when they are babies — as she sets off to leave, he begs her to stay and asks what will become of the tiny boys.
"Throw them in one of your wells," says Cathy. She then goes, adopts a new identity, and takes over a whorehouse in a nearby town.
When and whether Adam and the boys will find out the fate of their mother becomes the suspenseful central question for the book...
Just to give you a flavour of how brilliantly written this novel is, here's a few quotations culled from the dozens I jotted down while reading it. Steinbeck offers arresting descriptions of people and nature and external things...
As when Adam's mother "smile flashed and disappeared the way a trout crosses a knife of sunshine in a pool." Adam's son recalls "the clean sage-laced wind from the hills". Or how Cathy's mother made an unpleasant discovery when she pulled the barn doors open "and the bright sun crashed inside." Or how about the image of a "nervous March wind"?
But Steinbeck also describes thoughts and emotions and internal states with great vividness and psychological acuity.
Such as the way, after the terrible trauma of a savage beating, someone "lay in a cave of shock and opium." And when Adam finally begins to have an insight into what Cathy really is, "He thought he could see her impulses, crawling like ants and could read them." And later, of Cathy herself, when she begins to lose her grip, "Her mind drifted among impressions the way a bat drifts and swoops in the evening." Or when he writes of the "black reasoning" of the subconscious mind.
Steinbeck is a master storyteller. The emotional impact of the book is considerable. The reader's heart lifts when Adam finally gets free of Cathy. But more often our heart is broken, as when Adam's dying mother attributes his loving gifts to Adam's brother instead.
And we're also appalled — by Adam's goggle eyed love for his psychopathic, murdering whore of a wife — or angered, as when Adam refuses his son's gift of money... at this point I held my breath because I knew something terrible was going to happen. And when it did, I thought it served Adam right, the idiot — he brought this tragedy on himself.
But you'll have your own reactions to this great, sprawling, classic novel. It's not perfect, but it's a masterpiece.
And I'll end on a Steinbeck aphorism from its pages which has become a favourite of mine: "There is no dissatisfaction like that of the rich."
(Image credits: No lack of cover variants, thank heavens, since this is a long post. Indeed, there are so many to be found on Good Reads that — apart from the Pan version, which is the one I read (and scanned myself) — these are just drawn from the Penguin editions of the book. I particularly like the one of Cathy burning down the family home with her parents in it, cunningly designed to look like the American flag.)