I set the book down and picked up another copy of the same book with a different cover. The cover spoke to me. Maybe it was the two trees silhouetted against the dusty yellow sky; or perhaps it was the man painted underneath the tree in the foreground, whose body language conveyed a feeling of despair and anguish and regret; but probably it was the fact that the stupid Oprah sticker was missing. I read title in small italicized print at the bottom of the book: East of Eden. The author's name was printed in capital letters in orange ink: John Steinbeck.
I flipped the book over. The back cover described it as "a modern retelling of the Book of Genesis." Who doesn't love the Old Testament? I was sold. I sandwiched it between the two Stevenson tomes and marched to the cash register.
A (very) brief summary of this multi-generational sprawling historical epic: Cal and Aron were born in the Salinas valley in Monterey County, California (incidentally where Steinbeck grew up). The fraternal twins were raised by their father Adam Trask and Lee, the family's intellectual Chinese servant. The boys grew up being told by their father that their mother, Cathy, died when they were young and was in heaven. Quite the opposite was true: after attempting to kill Adam shortly after the birth of the twins, Cathy ran away and became a prostitute in the nearby town of Salinas.
Rather than wasting your time with my thoughts on the book, I'll let it speak for itself. As a teenager, Cal, the more clever and sinister of the twins, learns the truth about his mother:
Cal drifted toward the door, slowly, softly. He shoved his fists deep in his pockets. "It's like you said about knowing people. I hate her because I know why she went away. I know--because I've got her in me." His head was down and his voice was heartbroken.
Lee jumped up. "You stop that!" he said sharply. "You hear me? Don't let me catch you doing that. Of course you may have that in you. Everybody has. But you've got the other too. Here--look up! Look at me!"
Cal raised his head and said wearily, "What do you want?"
"You've got the other too. Listen to me! You wouldn't be wondering if you didn't have it. Don't you dare take the lazy way. It's too easy to excuse yourself because of your ancestry. Don't let me catch you doing it! Now--look close at me so you will remember. Whatever you do, it will be you who do it--not your mother."
"Do you believe that, Lee?"
"Yes, I believe it, and you'd better believe it or I'll break every bone in your body."
This book has several themes: identity and destiny, as illustrated by the previous passage; and good versus evil, according to the following:
I believe there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder. Humans are caught--in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too--in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last, and this despite any changes we may impose on field and river and mountain, on economy and manners. There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was is evil? Have I done well--or ill?
= = = = =
We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.
I suppose I could keep going with passages. But, if you've made it this far you might as well read the book.
Oh yeah, I had a confession to get to, of which I'm slightly ashamed: I owe my discovery of this book to Oprah, her book club, and a tacky red sticker.