Book Review: A Separate Peace

It has long been known that friendship and envy go together like Amanda Bynes and neurotic tendencies. Becoming attached to another person, calling them your best friend, can evoke a whole slew of disconcerting feelings that is as familiar to a sixteen year-old as it is to a college sophomore. A person worthy of that title earned it through possession of certain qualities that we admire, the same ones that made us want to befriend them in the first place, qualities that we sometimes wished we had ourselves.

But time can muddle the line between admiration and jealousy, even anger might evolve in the place where unadulterated love and respect once were. There is nothing fun about feeling that way, but once we do we are powerless to reverse the process. Feelings must be dealt with, didn't Freud teach us that?

In A Separate Peace, John Knowles dives head first into this socially tumultuous world that is high school. We meet Gene, the quiet scholarly type, and his roommate Phineas (Finny), the handsome, athletic golden-boy of this New England boarding school called Devon. Much by Finny's initiative, they become fast friends, one seemingly an extension of the other. It is 1942 and World War II is raging at full tilt. It's the summer before Gene and Finny's senior year when the story of their friendship begins; they are living in the liminal space between joyful boyhood and the looming threat of the approaching  draft.

Gen and Finny from the cinematic take on A Separate Peace

The novel explores how the need to establish an identity can possesses a person, and that fickle, malicious qualities, to some extent, exist in all of us. Knowles draws a striking contrast between the War that is transforming the world outside of Devon, and the one raging inside of Gene. This lurking darkness that he is constantly fighting - the enemy within.

My favorite aspect about this novel is its simplicity. Don't get me wrong, it is an incredible piece of work layered with meaning and profound insight into human nature, but it's presented in such a ingeniously simple way that you don't have to have a PhD in Literature to pick up on them. The beauty of this novel is accessible to anyone who takes the time to read it and it is a subject we can all relate to.

About the author

Just as On the Road functions like a memoir of Kerouac's glory days, A Separate Peace draws heavily from experiences in Knowles' youth. A Virginia native, he spent his high school years at a prestigious boarding school in New Hampshire, and spent eight months fighting the last few battles of World War II in the U.S. Air Force after graduating in 1945. A Separate Peace was published in 1960, and won the William Faulkner as well as the Rosenthal award, and although Knowles went on to write a number of other works, his first novel was his crowning achievement.

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Some of my favorite passages

“What I mean is, I love winter, and when you really love something, then it loves you back, in whatever way it has to love.”

"I did not know everything there was to know about myself, and knew that I did not know it; I wondered in the silences between jokes about Leper whether the still hidden parts of myself might contain the Sad Sack, the outcast, or the coward"

“All of them, all except Phineas, constructed at infinite cost to themselves these Maginot Lines against this enemy they thought they saw across the frontier, this enemy who never attacked that way-if he ever attacked at all; if he was indeed the enemy.”

“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”