I'm not sure how I can call myself a book lover and never have read John Steinbeck (OK, maybe I read Of Mice and Men in high school but I don't remember it). I feel bad about that. He is one of the American greats, and I've ignored him for 45 years? But what my literary schooling didn't provide me, my book club does, God bless them. They have forced some proper literature upon me.
Synopsis: The setting is Salinas Valley in Northern California, turn of the century, when farmers are scratching out a living, and capitalism is on the rise. It is against this backdrop that the epic story of good versus evil is told. At the heart of the story is two half-brothers, Charles and Adam, one loved more than the other by their single father, and thus plants the seed of jealousy and competition that will endure into the next generation.
Enter the perfect antagonist, Cathy, who believes the world is all evil, and sets out to use that to her advantage with a heart as cold as ice, for personal gain. Not only will she infect the lives of Charles and Adam, but have a pervasive influence on the lives of her and Adam's twin sons Cal and Aron.
Rounding out one of the most realized cast of characters in a literary novel are the supporting crew that deserve their own separate billing...Samuel Hamilton, the joyous, Irish farmer full of friendship and sage advice for his neighbors, and Lee, the Chinese American that works for Adam Trask and serves as the caretaker of Cal and Aron's souls.
In what has been heralded as the "great American novel", the reader finds themselves overwhelmed in themes of good versus evil, jealousy, brotherly love and hate, and the notion of "timshel" or "thou mayest"...freewill to overcome that darkness which can ruin a man.
My thoughts: To even attempt to write a synopsis on this monster is bogus, plus 90% of the reading world already knows the plot anyway, but I had to try for sport. This is the perfect example of a novel being greater than the sum of its parts. It is big and epic, filled with four dimensional characters (where they almost stick their fingers out of the pages and poke you in the eye, or the ear as it were), and expansive themes that my little brain almost can't comprehend.
The emotions laid before you are jarring. There was very little here that was lukewarm. I hated Cathy - she was as close to pure evil as you find in a book, and made my skin crawl and my stomach turn. But I loved to hate her too! I wanted to hug Samuel Hamilton and Lee, and befriend their warm, giving hearts. I wanted to smack Adam, that sap. For all the mistakes his father made, he turned around and made the same stupid mistakes with his own sons. He was gullible as well. Grrrr. Then there was all that murky, oily, gut-deep turmoil between brothers. It was expressed in such raw and feral terms, and at such a Cain and Able level of human nature, it made me uncomfortable and squrim in my chair.
It was these violent emotions that Steinbeck so perceptively described that caused me to spiral into a malaise when I finished the audio. The anger! The angst! The tragedies! The moral ruin! While the book was brilliant, it was not uplifting. Not even Samuel Hamilton, Lee, and the ultimate victory of timshel could save me. I wildly grasped for a David Sedaris audio afterwards like a life preserver.
A word about the audio production: More than a few of my book club members raised their eyebrows when I mentioned I would be "reading" this classic on audio. Almost seems sacrilegious, doesn't it? But it did work. At the outset, the narrator, Richard Poe, came across as stiff and vocally inflexible. But as the story developed, he grew on me. For anyone that may not have the time to sit and read over 600 pages in print, I'd highly recommend the audio option.
5 out of 5 stars