I’m divided on this one, I have to confess. He’s one of my favourite writers, I was fairly gripped by the plot… but there’s also much about this novel I didn’t like. Beginning in the 1860s, the story follows two families new to the Salinas Valley, the Trasks and the Hamiltons. The latter have been there slightly longer, allowing Samuel Hamilton to become a much-loved local fixture (the character is loosely based on Steinbeck’s maternal grandfather – the author himself makes a brief appearance as a young boy and narrates the novel), but most of the story focuses on Adam Trask and his wife, Cathy. The Hamiltons are happy but unlucky; Adam Trask makes a bad choice when he falls in love with Cathy. Later, there are lengthy scenes in which Adam and Samuel explore their ideas about life, happiness and responsibilities – to be honest, I think I prefer my Steinbeck characters terse and awkwardly uncommunicative.
Cathy, for me, was one of the most intriguing characters, although I felt distinctly uncomfortable at times at the way Steinbeck built up some rather two-dimensional female characters. It’s as though he can’t help but express a distaste for female bodies as they age. Cathy is a fascinating character because she is, for much of the novel, deeply immoral. Steinbeck makes no bones about his creation: ‘ I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents.’ The difficulty of creating such a character is to retain a sense of nuance. Towards the end, as she ages and faces the consequences of her actions, she becomes a more complex character, and the later sections are all the better for it.
Steinbeck is, and I’m not saying anything new here at all, better at marginalised male characters than he is at creating female characters in the same boat. Lee, the long-suffering servant of Adam and his twin boys, is the backbone of the Trask household, and Steinbeck seems to reserve a particular warmth for this Chinese-American character who has struggled to find a home of his own, and who harbours a dream to run a bookshop. As such, through this character, Steinbeck offers us far more of an insight into the early Twentieth Century, with its attendant dreams and casual violence, than he often manages with the more didactic descriptions that set up narrative changes. It’s possible that, after teaching the structurally brilliant Of Mice and Men for twenty years, I was expecting something a little more sparse. I know I’m going to be in the minority here, but I can’t help feeling that this novel could have been more concise, and that Lee perhaps deserved to take centre stage. But then perhaps that’s a different novel altogether that I’m looking for.