Book review: A Separate Peace / John Knowles (1959)


No spoilers. This was a good coming-of-age novel, and short at only 200 pages. The first 50 pages is some of the best fiction I’ve read all year! The beginning contains that special summertime atmosphere I loved in the movie Box of moonlight. And the final page still gives me chills thinking about it. The middle part of the book didn’t impress me as much and could have been better. The last 50 pages or so were an improvement, and better than the middle section.

The setting is an American boarding school for teenage boys during the 1940s. Events are narrated by Gene Forrester, the insecure, conscientious, nerdy and bookish main character with a fragile identity. Gene’s best friend is Phineas/Finny, athletic, out-going, confident and popular, a natural leader, loves sports, but is academically inferior to Gene. The story is mostly about Gene and Phineas’s differences and how their friendship evolves during a memorable summer and year they will never forget.

On the surface they appear a mismatch, but they each offer something to the other which they themselves lack and maybe are jealous of. Is Gene an unreliable narrator? You could argue Phineas was never the superhero Gene imagined him to be. Some claim Gene cannot express his jealousy, because Phineas has always been kind to him, and gives Gene the friendly push, which Gene needs. This jealously and frustration is portrayed as something internal. Gene also suspects that Phineas games and rebellious attitude are an attempt to derail Gene’s studies? Gene feels torn between academic expectations, and loyalty to his friend. For much of the novel Gene seems to regard Phineas personality as full of contradictions: “who seemed to love the school truly and deeply, and never more than when he was breaking the regulations”. Some have indicated in other reviews that Gene was weak and secretly loathed Phineas, but I’m not sure I agree with this. This ambiguity is part of the appeal. The friendship to me is mutual. I would even go so far as to say Gene at times secretly wants to be Phineas. The book questions what friendship is. Something everyone can relate to.

Perhaps Knowles didn’t need to include so many descriptions of nature. Another weakness I found was the lack of interest in girls among the teenage boys, which is a little odd given their age. Some reviewers claim there may be a homosexual subtext in Gene and Phineas’s relationship, I seriously doubt this. It’s more about an inner- and outer- war and peace. World War II has just begun, but the Devon students are removed from its hard realities, and can therefore accept or reject it as they choose. The possibility of being drafted looms in the air. I thought the war elements are comparable to young US soldier’s dealing with feelings towards the recent Iraq/Afghanistan conflict. I think it’s an anti-war novel. At the same time, Gene is fighting a war within himself, he appears to leave behind his old and innocent ways, and create a new and more mature self. To me, the book seems to question if Gene would in fact prefer to go back to his old self.

This is a deceptively straightforward book. The actual storyline is simple, Gene looking back on his schooling 15 years earlier, but to me the atmosphere and confused adolescent emotions are the strengths of the book.

I’ve read in a critical essay that Gene the boy is too close to his own experiences to understand them properly, and Gene the man is too removed to express effectively the vitality that characterizes adolescence, but between them they succeed in dissolving the limitations of conventional first-person narration. According to the author John Knowles, man can only know himself through action; he learns about life by acting on it, not by thinking about it:

Page 1:
“school looked like a museum, and that’s exactly what it was to me, and what I did not want it to be. In the deep, tacit way in which feeling becomes stronger than thought, I had always felt that Devon School came into existence the day I entered it, was vibrantly real while I was a student there, and then blinked out like a candle the day I left”

The name Phineas is linked to Greek mythology. I’ve read that the Greek view of Phineas sports is a competition against oneself, a healthy struggle in which you measure your capacities without ego, fear, or hubris. This is particularly evident in the swimming scene. Phineas is also the name of an angel in the bible, and Phineas acts as a guardian angel towards Gene.

A thirty-something male narrator looking back on school life and the main theme of guilt is a little similar to Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History”, which I reviewed in 2010. I probably should have read “A separate peace” when I was younger. Having said that, this is the sort of novel you can easily re-read looking for clues, as the main character’s behaviour can be tough even for adults to understand.

Selling over nine million copies, it was one of the most widely read American novels after World War II. Like several other book recommendations on my blog, it’s based on John Knowles’ own experiences growing up, and comes across as a very personal debut novel. A little-known and judging from reviews inferior sequel was released in 1981 called "Peace Breaks Out".

The title “A Separate Peace” is very interesting, and open to interpretation. Is it about moulding your own separate personality within a group? Do the two main characters achieve some kind of peace? Or should we read the title as a reflection of the safe haven boarding school cut off from the violent war abroad. The title is derived from a quotation in Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms in which Lt. Henry states, "I had made a separate peace," with his adversaries in World War I.

If you like old-fashioned American coming-of-age tales with a memorable and introspective narrator like boyish girl Frankie Addams in Carson McCullers' warm-hearted war time novel "The Member of the Wedding" (1946), or confused Holden Caulfield in “The Catcher in the rye” (1951), “A Separate Peace” is for you. All three of these books in my opinion are stronger for internal monologues rather than the actual storytelling; they all explore bored adolescents trying to figure out who they are. Another classic coming-of-age novel you might want to check out is Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943), which is one I haven’t read.

If you enjoy reading about teenage angst and male friendship, “A Separate Peace” is a recommended read. The book gets extra points for the characters ability to stay with me afterwards. One of those books, which reveals itself in hindsight.

8/10

Further reading

4 comments:

  1. I really think I need to reread this book. I read it back in high school and so many people in my class--including myself--hated it that our teacher said she was going to try and get it removed from the required reading list.

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  2. Jump_Raven : Yes, people in the US tend to read this in high school. I've never heard anyone talk about John Knowles over here in Europe, which is why I'm highlighting him on my blog. Looks like this is a much more popular book in the States.

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  3. I'm a sophomore in high school and I'm reading this in my English II class now. We're about half way through it and I'm just dying to see what happens at the end!

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  4. @miss.nolife: Actually the reviews where I wrote high school get the most hits on my blog. I enjoyed A Separate Peace, especially the first 50 pages, and I hope my article is useful for your project.

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