Sometimes we read books because we feel like we should. That is the situation with John Steinbeck and me. He appears on lists of books you must read if you are a well-read person. I like to consider myself a well-read person. The obvious conclusion is that I must read Steinbeck. He doesn't fit into my usual reading habits. My classics of choice are usually by such authors as Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope. Steinbeck is bigger and grittier and...more American. How did I get on with him? I am not really sure. I am not going to summarize the book, you can find a summary online if you want one, this is simply my impressions of it. I read the first few pages and I fell in love with some of Steinbeck's descriptions.
Every petal of blue lupin is edged with white, so that of field of lupins is more blue than you can imagine. And mixed with these were splashes of California poppies. These too are of a burning color--not orange, not gold, but if pure gold were liquid and could raise cream, that golden cream might be like the color of the poppies. When their season was over the yellow mustard came up and grew to a great height. When my grandfather came into the valley the mustard was so tall that a man on horseback showed only his head above the yellow flowers. On the uplands the grass would be strewn with buttercups, with hen-and-chickens, with black-centered yellow violets. And a little later in the season there would be red and yellow stands of Indian paintbrush. These were the flowers of the open places exposed to the sun. Under the live oaks, shaded and dusky, the maidenhair flourished and gave a good smell, and under the mossy banks of the water courses whole clumps of five-fingered ferns and goldy-backs hung down. Then there were harebells, tiny lanterns, cream white and almost sinful looking, and these were so rare and magical that a child, finding one, felt singled out and special all day long.
Steinbeck's descriptions of people could be just as enthralling. In this excerpt he is describing Liza Hamilton and really, this tells you all you need to know about her.
And she looked forward to Heaven as a place where clothes did not get dirty and where food did not have to be cooked and dishes washed. Privately there were some things in Heaven of which she did not quite approve. There was too much singing, and she didn't see how even the Elect could survive for very long the celestial laziness which was promised. She would find something to do in Heaven. There must be something to take up one's time--some clouds to darn, some weary wings to rub with liniment. Maybe the collars of the robes needed turning now and then, and when you come right down to it, she couldn't believe that even in Heaven there would not be cobwebs in some corner to be knocked down with a cloth-covered broom.
If Steinbeck had used his beautiful descriptions and way with words simply to tell the story of the Hamiltons and the Trasks I think I would have loved this book. My issues with it are the same things that many feel are the things that make it great. The novel has huge messages of depravity, redemption, free will, and evil versus good. There is a biblical parallel throughout the book with the story of Cain and Abel. It is not the biblical parallel I had a problem with, I am a religious person myself, it is that these parallels and lessons were driven home with such a heavy hand. I like my points made quietly, lightly, not with a sledgehammer. Leave the reader to come to conclusions on his own, let him spend time musing and thinking about the book and what the author is trying to say. Don't beat the message into him.
There was one character who was so unpleasant that she didn't seem to fit into the book. Steinbeck himself described her as a monster. Again, I understand the whole good versus evil, but this character was so evil that whenever she came into the book she completely pulled me out of the story. She wasn't real to me and I didn't want her to be.
So we come back to the question: how did I get on with John Steinbeck? The answer is I just don't know. The book is very readable and there were parts when I didn't want to put it down. But then there were parts when I hated it. I loved some of his writing but I hated some of his characters. In a way, I felt as if it was two books. One was the story of two families and their intertwined lives and one was an allegory that was so involved in itself that it sometimes lost the story. I loved one but not the other.
Would I read Steinbeck again? Yes, I think I would. For those moments when he says the things I wish I could say, those moments when I find myself rereading a description because it is just so right.
This was reviewed as part of my Classics Club list.