Gene was a lonely, introverted intellectual. Phineas was a handsome, taunting, daredevil athlete. What happened between them at school one summer during the early years of World War II is the subject of A Separate Peace. A great bestseller for over thirty years – one of the most starkly moving parables ever written of the dark forces that brood over the tortured world of adolescence.
“It seemed clear that wars were not made by generations and their special stupidities, but that wars were made instead by something ignorant in the human heart”
It is a beautiful thing to enter a novel without great expectations and discover something wonderful. If not for Lit class, I’d have never picked up A Separate Peace in a hundred years. The blurb on the back cover didn’t appeal to me in the slightest. I was prepared to have to struggle through a book that I wasn’t into all in the name of studying literature. But then something happened. I began to get interested in the story and invested in the character’s lives. By the half way point I was so caught up in the novel, I could hardly put it down. And by the end, I was immensely glad I’d gotten a chance to read it.
Everything, and I mean everything, worked to create a compelling and well constructed story that I really enjoyed. Where to begin? There’s Gene, the narrator, whose return to Devon School as an adult prompts him to remember the events of his childhood. He’s a typical teenager; unable to see the good in himself, jealous of those who he considers better than him, with emotions controlling him. Phineas is Gene’s opposite, bright and optimistic, a natural leader, a boy too good for the world. If Gene is winter; Finny is summer. Gene and Finny’s friendship grows increasingly complex as the novel progresses, only gaining clarity in the final chapters.
At 16, Gene, Finny and the other boys at Devon School are experiencing their final year of freedom before they must join the army. It is a time of fun and few rules, where the war is a distant bother. The war is a symbol of maturity and heroism to the boys who are distanced from the harsh realities of war. Even when faced with the truth, they would much rather escape into their idealized fantasies than accept reality.
The entire novel is structured as Gene’s memories, which are unreliable and highly biased. As a reader you can only even see the events through Gene’s eyes and Knowles constantly makes sure you are aware of this fact throughout the novel. And the writing is amazing. It is able to do so much at once – create mood, develop character, enhance theme, foreshadow and further the plot all with simple prose. There’s a lot more I can say and a lot more I’d love to discuss, but alas, I must refrain from spoilers. I will tell you that the ending is among one of the best I’ve read – sad and haunting. It is a reflection of the atmosphere of the novel as a whole, and ties together all the themes.
A Separate Peace is, in short, a story a a boy at boarding school during WWII who discovers how the smallest moment can change your life, and the lives of those around you, forever. Recommended.
“I felt that I was not, never had been and never would be a living part of this overpoweringly solid and deeply meaningful world around me.”