East of Eden was considered by John Steinbeck as his master piece. To quote him from the introduction, "it contains all I know about, nothing is held back".
The story is set in the Salinas Valley in California around the turn of the 20th century (yes the 1900s). On the face of it the story flows like a gentle river, unlike the stark, raw scenes of his earlier novel Grapes of Wrath. It revolves around the Hamiltons, the author's maternal family and Trasks, fictional neighbours. The first 400 pages are dominated by Samuel Hamilton, Steinbeck's grandfather. Sam knows everything about everything, is an inventor and an amiable person. His philosophical discussions with Lee, the chinese servant of Trasks is one of the highlights of the novel. Lee is a servant you would die for.
The story goes like this. Adam Trask falls in love with Catherine whom he saved from death and marries her. But she is evil personified and wants to go away from him. After giving birth to twins she decides to walk away. When he pleads with her she just shoots him at his shoulder and walks away to run a brothel house. The kids are taken care of by Lee, the chinese servant. The kids are named Caleb and Aaron. Caleb has a dark side to him and is mean, but he also knows that he is mean. Aaron is the angelic kid, whom every one likes. While Caleb craves for his father's attention, Adam gets it effortlessly. This leads to jealousy in Caleb and how it affects their lives is the basis of the story. The Hamiltons and the Salinas valley provide the backdrop of the story. The book is at various levels, at one level it is a straight forward story, at another level it is about the eternal struggle of good and evil. The twins are named like Cain and Abel in the bible.
Steinbeck's writing has a lyrical quality and he leads the reader into the storyscape smoothly. The Salinas Valley gets as much importance as the characters, much like RK Narayan's Malgudi. After a few pages you start identifying yourself with the characters, which to me is the stamp of a good book.
Read it, if you like serious literature.